Imagine it’s 2017. Scott Walker is commander in chief. He sits in a national security briefing, weighing grave decisions on how to defeat the Islamic State with resolve. After all, in 2011, he faced down thousands of protesters as governor of Wisconsin amid a battle over labor unions and collective bargaining.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, this was how the Wisconsin governor said he would respond to the Islamic State if he were to become commander in chief. “If I can take on 100,000 protesters,” he said, “I can do the same across the world.”
A controversial figure in his home state, Walker had enjoyed something of a frontrunner status in recent weeks in the invisible Republican primary for the 2016 presidential election. He drew the largest audience and applause at CPAC on Thursday, with attendees crowding the aisles. But his shallow answer and the implicit if inadvertent comparison of pro-labor protesters to murdering terrorists may knock him off the roller coaster of early 2016 speculation by displaying he’s not quite ready for primetime.
It underscores the challenge Walker and other potential GOP candidates face translating their experience to a strong enough argument on national security to sell themselves as commander in chief, at a time of unprecedented security challenges around the globe.
And it’s an even greater challenge for state-level executives such as Walker and Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who also both spoke at CPAC on Thursday, when they have not had the ready-made national platform of Congress to develop a record on defense.
Christie focused on personality, though he predictably invoked Reagan and sought to tie likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to President Barack Obama. Jindal similarly gave little substance on national security beyond strong rhetoric on “radical Islamic terrorism.” Walker, in an impassioned speech delivered on the prowl with rolled-up sleeves, touched on Republican foreign policy favorites from the U.S.-Israeli relationship, to the nuclear talks with Iran to the Russian “reset.”
As a governor, “Sometimes people don’t understand in the media I actually get a threat assessment from the FBI,” Walker told the CPAC crowd in a question and answer session after the speech. “I’ve been concerned about that threat [from the Islamic State], not just abroad, but on American soil.”
He referenced security concerns in the Twin Cities after al Shabaab mentioned threatening malls across the world in a recent video.
“I have two sons … I know all of you as parents feel the same way as I do,” he said. “We need a commander in chief who will do everything in their power to make sure the threat from radical Islamic terrorists will not wash up on American soil.” He continued with his own threat to potential terrorists: “Do not take this upon freedom loving people here or anywhere around the world.”