Tough questions about President Obama’s religion and background are proving to be an early litmus test for likely GOP White House hopefuls.
The dilemma many Republicans are stumbling over: Do they play to the base by questioning the president’s motives, or do they dismiss the questions as ludicrous while taking a shot instead at his policies and politics?
Gov. Scott Walker (R) chose the former this weekend, refusing to say whether he believes the president is a Christian after fumbling earlier questions about Obama’s patriotism.
Now, he’s learning the hard way that the glare of the national press isn’t kind, causing even allies to question whether he’s truly ready for the prime-time spotlight.
“Scott Walker has accomplished an incredible amount in the state of Wisconsin and demonstrated true leadership. That’s what people should be focusing on, and I think he took the focus off of that by not answering these questions,” said Fred Malek, a top GOP donor who has worked with Walker through the Republican Governors Association.
“He should have just said he takes the president at his word that he is a Christian and a patriot.”
Walker’s Saturday comments came days after he refused to say whether he agreed with remarks former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) had made in his presence that Obama “doesn’t love” America, and just a week after he said he was “going to punt on that” when asked if he believes in evolution.
“I mean, the mayor can speak for himself. I’m not going to comment on whether — what the president thinks or not. He can speak for himself as well. I’ll tell you, I love America,” Walker said when asked about Giuliani’s comments.
Walker’s struggles highlight a problem for presidential candidates in both parties, but one that has especially tripped up Republicans in recent years: how to prove you stand with your party’s base without alienating independents, stirring controversy and distracting from your core message.
The ensuing blowback seemed to jolt an otherwise surging campaign. The Wisconsin governor delivered a well-received speech at the Iowa Freedom Forum last month and surged in early state polls. He began adding to his campaign team and was seen as the new rising star in a crowded GOP field.
Such questions are often minefields for Republicans talking about the nation’s first African-American president, who some on the right have accused of being Muslim and un-American.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) ran into a similar problem already this year with his claims of Muslim “no-go zones” in Europe, which drew intense scrutiny in the press.
And while Republicans protest that they face a lot more heat from the media than Democrats, they admit the reality of modern campaigns means candidates can’t duck questions they don’t like — and that they have to finesse their answers carefully.
“You better learn to live with it. You may not like mosquitoes, but you will get bit if you don’t prepare,” said Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist. “You have to talk to the base, who want to know you’re still with them and love them, and you need to talk in a way where the base understands you, and available independent voters get it.”
Most other likely presidential candidates decided to follow Norquist’s advice, disagreeing with Giuliani’s personal attacks on Obama and pivoting to attacks on his policies.
“Democrats aren’t asked to answer every time [Vice President] Biden says something embarrassing. So I don’t know why I should answer every time a Republican does. I will suffice it to say that I believe the president loves America. I just think his ideas are bad,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said when asked about the comments.
“Gov. Bush doesn’t question President Obama’s motives. He does question President Obama’s disastrous policies,” a spokeswoman for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) said on the matter.
Walker doubled down on Sunday with a familiar refrain — his campaign sent out an email to supporters saying he “refuses to be distracted by the small, petty, and pale ideas that the ‘gotcha’ headline writers for the Liberal Media want to talk about” — and his team is blaming a “double standard” in the press for the firestorm.
“While Republicans are expected to weigh in on every issue, the Democrats get a free pass,” said a Walker aide via email. “The governor has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to weigh in on things he isn’t qualified to address and that we should talk about issues that move our country forward and that’s what he’s going to do.”
It’s still almost a year before the early primaries, and GOP strategists argue Walker has plenty of time to live and learn from his recent missteps. But the firestorm is a warning sign for candidates in both parties that they need to address questions, even those that risk alienating certain groups of voters.
“I think they’ve learned their lesson,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. “Part of running for president is learning lessons, adapting. I don’t think this is a big mistake, but it requires a minor course correction and I think [Walker will] adapt quickly.”