Influential conservatives are divided over Wisconsin governor and GOP presidential candidate Scott Walker’s handling of questions this week about President Obama’s faith and patriotism. Some say Walker is right to lambast such queries as “gotcha” questions from a media they believe is biased against conservatives, while other Republicans say the governor is showing flaws that cut against his image as a crafty politician who could defeat likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in a head-to-head matchup next year.
Over the last few days, since former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani pointedly questioned if Obama loves America in a closed-door session with conservative activists that included Walker, the governor has been repeatedly asked questions about Obama’s personal beliefs. And Walker has refused to say if he believes the president loves America or is a Christian.
“Good politicians can answer them effectively,” wrote conservative columnist Matt Lewis in the Daily Beast on Saturday, referring to such controversial questions. “Conservatives should be worried that Walker hasn’t proven capable of navigating these land mines.”
Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist from the New York Times, wrote in a Twitter message, “I think you are required to concede someone’s public profession of faith. There’s room for finesse in how you do it.” Former Florida GOP congressman and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough expressed similar concerns.
“Republicans who question President Obama’s patriotism and his Christian faith, or who leave question marks around it, are in my judgment acting in ways that are wrong and unwise,” said Pete Wehner, who a top policy adviser in George W. Bush’s administration and a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. “Wrong because it’s inappropriate and pulls our politics down and unwise because it’s easy to underestimate how much this kind of stuff and all the debate surrounding it, hurts the Republican Party.”
But a slew of Republicans, particularly online, blasted the press for asking Walker and other candidates these questions. And Asa Hutchinson, the governor of Arkansas, said in a brief interview with NBC News that he felt it was difficult for Walker or any other politician to answer questions about another person’s beliefs.
“I wouldn’t be critical of anybody on that,” said Hutchinson, who was attending a meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington that included Walker.
The controversy over Walker’s comments comes as the Wisconsin governor is at the start of a likely presidential campaign that could have promise. Unlike many of the other candidates in the field, Walker has appeal to conservative Republicans because of his record of confronting labor unions in Wisconsin, but also moderates in the party who view Walker positively because he has won three statewide races in a traditionally blue state.
In the early stages of the race, Walker is trying to run as an electable but still conservative alternative to ex-Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is the favorite of many GOP moderates but viewed skeptically by those on the right.
Walker has spent the last month courting major GOP donors and elites in the party, attending a event in New York City on Wednesday that was packed with major conservative figures such as Rich Lowry, editor of National Review. It was at that dinner where Giuliani said of Obama, “I do not believe that the president loves America.”
Those remarks by the former mayor quickly turned into a media frenzy, with the GOP candidates being asked to comment on them. Bush, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, ex-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have all suggested it is better to focus on the president’s policies than such personal questions.
“I believe the president loves America. His ideas are bad,” Rubio said.
Walker did not take that approach. Asked by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Friday if Obama loves America, Walker said,“I’ve never asked the President , so I don’t really know what his opinions are on that one way or another. “
The next day, in an interview with the Washington Post, Walker sidestepped a question about whether Obama is a Christian, saying “I’ve actually never talked about it or I haven’t read about that.”
Obama has repeatedly said that he is a Christian and that he loves America.
Walker’s spokeswoman later told the Post, “Of course the governor thinks the president is a Christian, adding, “He thinks these kinds of gotcha questions distract from what he’s doing as governor of Wisconsin.”
It’s unclear if Walker’s comments are part of a broader strategy to signal to conservatives who dislike Obama personally that he is one of them or simply a distaste of being asked questions that seem targeted at making him commit some kind of gaffe.