Scott Walker: Shifting views to be in a better position for 2016?

Gov. Scott Walker spoke at the Governor's Conference on Tourism on March 16, 2015, in La Crosse, Wis. (AP photo)
Gov. Scott Walker spoke at the Governor's Conference on Tourism on March 16, 2015, in La Crosse, Wis. (AP photo)

Now a leader among the undeclared GOP candidates for president, Scott Walker is being pressed more frequently for his views, and on a wider range of topics.

As he visits early primary and caucus states, the governor is attuning his message to audiences far more conservative than general election voters in Wisconsin. And Walker’s words are getting more scrutiny.

Some of it is harsh, even from the GOP side.

A few days after one of Walker’s visits to Iowa, TheIowaRepublican.com highlighted his shifting stances on immigration and ethanol with the headline: "Walker: The biggest flip-flopper you will ever find?"

There may not be a widespread view that Walker’s modifying of positions has threatened his chances for 2016. The changes could even help him secure the nomination.

"I think Walker is a top contender for the nomination," said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report in Washington, D.C., said in an interview. "And I don’t think he has done anything in the first months of the campaign to disqualify him from winning the race."

Yet less than three months into 2015, Walker has been dinged six times on the Flip-O-Meter, our tool for determining if a politician has changed positions on an issue. That’s double the number over the previous four years.

So let’s take a closer look at Walker’s repositioning and its implications.

The meter and Walker’s latest ratings

We’ll start by noting the Flip-O-Meter has three possible ratings:

No Flip -- No substantial change of position. The politician has been consistent.

Half Flip -- A partial change of position or inconsistent statements.

Full Flop -- A major reversal of position; a complete flip-flop.

Here’s a summary of Walker’s 2015 ratings:

 

Issue

Flip-O-Meter rating

Change in position

Immigration

Half Flip

Shifts from backing pathway to citizenship

Immigration

Full Flop

"Absolutely," I’ve changed from 2013

Right to Work

Full Flop

Said he wouldn’t support in 2015, then signs bill

Budget shortfalls

Full Flop

Used the state’s counting method, then refuted it

Ethanol mandates

Half Flip

Opposed, now supports, for now

Common Core

Half Flip

Tacitly supported, called for repeal, then backed off that


Immigration: U-turn on pathway to citizenship

The one issue where Walker has taken the rare step of openly acknowledging a major change  is on the status of illegal immigrants.

"My view has changed. I'm flat out saying it," Walker told host Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday" on March 1, 2015. After signaling over the years his support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, Walker shifted to say that shouldn't be considered until there is greater border security and tougher enforcement.

"So, you've changed from 2013?" Wallace asked the governor.

"Absolutely," he said.

For that admission, we gave Walker a Full Flop. (A month earlier, he had received a Half Flip after backing away from his support for a path to citizenship by saying: "I’m not for amnesty.")

As Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Washington bureau chief Craig Gilbert has observed, Walker's shift places him to the right of fellow Republican Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, on immigration reform, which may help the Wisconsin governor in the GOP primaries. Yet it also could make it harder for Walker to win Latino votes if he becomes the party’s nominee.

In general, said Brendan Nyhan, a government professor at Dartmouth University in New Hampshire, "it’s fair to say Walker is under pressure to change positions that worked in Wisconsin to better fit the national party base. What works in one state might not work at the national level, especially when it comes to a contested primary."

Ethanol mandates: Against, then not -- at least for now

Perhaps no issue is more important to Iowa farmers than the federal requirement that ethanol -- which is often made from corn -- be blended into America's gasoline supply. Which means presidential hopefuls who may have said little or nothing about the mandates are suddenly confronted with staking out, or altering, a position.

In 2006, Walker strongly opposed an effort in Wisconsin to require ethanol use in midgrade gasoline, on the grounds that the government should not be dictating such rules. But at the March 2015 Iowa Ag Summit, a presidential candidate cattle call of sorts, Walker said he supported maintaining the federal ethanol mandate -- though he would like to see it phased out eventually. That earned him a Half Flip.

Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines, said he doesn’t sense Walker is gaining a reputation as a flip-flopper, but it is something a candidate needs to guard against.

"If it looks as though you’re beginning to pander, telling an audience what it wants to hear, that doesn’t look like a stronger leader," he said. "You want to be able to argue that your principles are the same, but that you are adapting to conditions."

‘Right to work’ in 2015: No, then yes

Across the country, Republican lawmakers have long pushed for more states to adopt "right-to-work" laws, which prohibit businesses and unions from reaching labor deals that require workers to pay union fees. Walker has backed right to work dating back to his days as a lawmaker in the 1990s.

But the contentiousness of the issue showed in late summer 2014, during Walker’s campaign for re-election, when he seemed to get cold feet on moving forward with such legislation -- saying he was "not supporting it in this (2015) session."

Then in late February 2015, with his fellow Republicans fast-tracking a right-to-work bill, Walker said he would sign it (and he later did). For going from saying he would not support it in the 2015 term to signing it, Walker got a Full Flop.

Where Walker ultimately lands on an issue is likely to be more important to primary voters and caucus goers than whether there was a shift in position, said Nyhan.

"I just see this as normal political behavior;  it doesn’t offend me" that a candidate would alter his position, he said.  "The question I would ask is: Is the new position the right one?"

By the time voters in New Hampshire and Iowa weigh in, in early 2016, Nyhan added, any changes in Walker’s positions in early 2015 "will be old news."

Common Core: Not entirely for, not entirely against

During most of his first term, the governor showed tacit support for Common Core, a set of standards for English and math that have been adopted by nearly every state beginning in 2010.

By mid-2014, however, as conservatives around the country were building opposition to Common Core, Walker called for an outright repeal of the standards in Wisconsin.

Yet by January 2015, the governor pulled back, saying only that he didn’t want school districts required to use Common Core. That inconsistency earned him a Half Flip.

Budget shortfalls: His versus mine

Walker has taken one of his favorite talking points national, touting how in 2011 he inherited a $3.6 billion budget shortfall from Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, but dug out of it by cutting costs and limiting union bargaining powers.

Yet when Fox News anchor Bret Baier pointed out in an interview that aired Feb. 6, 2015  that Walker himself was facing a $2.2 budget shortfall of his own in 2015, the governor blasted the credibility of the number, which had been calculated in the same way the Doyle shortfall had.

We gave Walker a Full Flop.

Even at that, our experts agreed that whatever shifts Walker has made, it hasn’t created a narrative that he is a flip-flopper. More would have to happen for that label to do real damage, they said.

"It will be up to Walker’s (GOP) opponents to highlight and promote any inconsistencies that they see," said Gonzales. "I don’t think voters are going to stumble upon a lengthy discussion about what positions a candidate has had on specific issues."

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