What’s behind Joe Walsh raising questions about Mark Kirk’s recovery?

Joe Walsh did not go easily from Congress, defeated in 2012 having served just one term representing Illinois’s 8th Congressional District. After losing badly to Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth, the Tea Party Republican makes no secret that he would like an encore. In the meantime, he has a three-hour platform every weeknight — during the coveted drive time — via his talk show on Chicago’s WIND-AM.

Walsh has not broken much news on the show, which he has anchored since last March.

That is, until last week. On his Tuesday and Wednesday shows, he committed an act of striking political incorrectness in questioning “the physical and mental well-being” of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

In the Senate, Kirk had continued — he had previously served five terms representing Illinois's 10th District — to accurately advertise himself as a national security and fiscal hawk, but a centrist on social issues, such as abortion. He was winning plaudits for his bipartisanship, his reasonableness in an increasingly unreasonable Congress.

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And then on Jan. 21, 2012, just a year into his term as a senator and with even higher ambitions on his mind — secretary of State? Vice president? President? — Kirk suffered a massive stroke that required removing and later replacing a piece of his skull in order to relieve swelling.

In his radio monologues, Walsh inserted variations of the word “respect,” said “his heart goes out” and his “thoughts and prayers” are with Kirk, 54, who won a brutal contest in November 2010 to become the junior senator from Illinois.

“I don’t think he can do the job because of the stroke,” Walsh said. “It doesn’t make me happy ... Do we ignore it? ... Shouldn’t he step down?

I called Walsh, whom I have previously interviewed, last Friday. He told me that Kirk’s recovery has been awe-inspiring but added, “With all due respect, is he capable of doing the job? ... I know it’s a sensitive issue, and I mean no disrespect, but he represents an entire state and ... shouldn’t be protected.” Walsh noted that pre-stroke, “Mark was so sharp. He was running the Republican Party in Illinois.” No longer, Walsh claims.

While at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, weeks would pass with no word on Kirk’s condition or his return date, but Kirk kept at his rehab and his staff sporadically posted videos of his grueling, slow progress. The videos were brave, some of Kirk’s descriptions were graphic, and his praise for the institute and its physical therapists was heartfelt and fulsome. Everyone, it seemed, was rooting for the young, smart, hardworking, dedicated public servant to get back to work.

After being released from the facility and continuing therapy as an outpatient from his home in suburban Chicago, Kirk returned to the Senate in January, triumphantly, albeit with obvious difficulty, climbing the steps of the Capitol. He is paralyzed on his left side and gets around with the aid of staffers, a cane and a wheelchair. Last week, when he gave his first post-stroke floor speech, in support of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, he sought permission to deliver the short (a bit over a minute) speech seated.

Kirk is up for reelection in 2016. He has said that he is running and that he is raising money. No one, not Democrat or Republican, has as much as whispered the possibility of challenging the enormously sympathetic senator.

Enter Walsh. He told me that he would not challenge Illinois’s senior senator, Dick Durbin. in 2014. But, “If I had to challenge Mark Kirk in a Republican primary, I’d consider it.”

He said he’s also considering a run for Congress in 2014, though he’s not sure which Republican congressman he’d challenge. Randy Hultgren has been suggested by others. He noted he has only two to three weeks to decide, and if Walsh decided to run, he’d have to give up his radio gig.

Walsh told me that he has been traveling the state, talking to Tea Party groups and building “an army of freedom fighters all over the state to kick butt, 7,000 in Illinois, Walsh freedom fighters.”

Walsh posted on his website two videos of Kirk that, he told me, proved that his concern was warranted.

The first is a May 30, “Chicago Tonight” show segment in which veteran journalist Carol Marin interviewed Kirk in his first appearance on the program since his stroke, The interview lasted 18-plus minutes.

Walsh posted the entire interview, but directed his viewers to start at a point at which Kirk appears somewhat distracted and disconnected. In a conversation about same-sex marriage and the ouster of Pat Brady as head of the Illinois Republican Party, Kirk says, “You’ve gotta ask the question, why has the United States recently built a company called Apple?”

But the remainder of the interview, which is generally more personal than policy related, is better for Kirk. He does OK and sometimes well, and sometimes delivers truly inspiring observations.

Kirk describes his newfound faith: saying he saw, in the ICU, three beckoning angels at the foot of his bed. He wittily describes it as a “pharmacological event because a lot of America’s pharmaceutical industry was in me at the time.”

He expresses his determination to help others afflicted with stroke. He answers Marin’s question about the upcoming gubernatorial race by promising to stay out of it.

Kirk got a couple of facts wrong, but anyone who has appeared on television knows that nervousness and over preparation can cause flubs.But video that Walsh posts from last week is truly a disaster for Kirk, weird from start to finish.

In the four-plus minute video, shot during a Senate committee hearing, Kirk harshly questions Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Kirk seems determined to riff off the fact that the CEO of one of the companies responsible for the ObamaCare website mess is named Michael Roach. The witness appears bewildered by Kirk’s line of questioning in which he seems to imply that Tavenner personally handed over $400 million to contractors CGI Federal and QSSI. He asks her why it was done in such a “sneaky” way.

“I’m from Chicago where we always follow the money.” He mentions Roach in connection with a “holiday in the Bahamas.” He says that another CEO connected to the website “must be driving something really nice.” At that point he imagines Tavenner calling this man, and suddenly Kirk, a Navy reserve officer, blurts, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” Navy lingo for WTF. “As we would say in the navy,” Kirk explains to a perplexed witness and audience, not to mention colleagues and staff.

Walsh is correct in describing a zone of silence on any aspect of the 2016 race, but so what? It’s awfully early. This is true among Republicans, who if they’re considering a challenge to Kirk in 2016 are keeping it to themselves.

The same goes for Democrats: no point in announcing now. Are secret hopefuls eager to draw Kirk as an opponent in a general election? Perhaps. With the election three years away, Kirk has time for further rehabilitation, but if he had to face an opponent in a debate today, he might have a problem.

According to Walsh, Kirk’s highly protective staffers were furious at his radio remarks and postings. He says he heard indirectly that they were threatening to tell other pubic officials to boycott his show. Walsh confirms that all four candidates for the Republican nomination for Illinois governor have already appeared on his show, each for a full hour

In a follow-up email on Monday, I asked him if there was any news on the boycott front: “No news, just whispers from various unnamed republicans--some happy I raised the issue, some very angry at me. Lots of feedback from everyday republicans.”

Walsh told me he has invited Kirk to appear on his show. “Come on, Mark, come on the show,” he said on air. Not surprisingly, Walsh hasn’t heard back.