Scott Walker and the GOP’s “Safety Issue”

Rip the last six months of headlines from all the nation’s newspapers. Boil them down to a single sentence, and here’s what you get:

The American economy is growing and the Middle East is on fire.

For the Republican Party, victory in 2016 will likely depend on the degree to which they can keep the American people focused on the flames.

Which isn’t to say the Obama economy is a triumph of corporate dynamism and shared prosperity. Republicans recognize the incumbent party’s vulnerability on wage stagnation, and a few have even been experimenting with the language of class warfare. But campaigning against income inequality is no easy task for a party committed to the abolition of the Estate Tax.

Convincing Americans that their security depends on a more aggressive foreign policy is a far simpler assignment. A wide swath of the electorate already has more faith in the GOP on military matters. The only challenge will be in teaching the middle-class to fear Islamic terrorists more than their mounting mortgage payments.

To that end, Scott Walker has decided to rebrand “national security” as “the safety issue.” Walker explained his innovation to Hugh Hewitt, on the right-wing pundit’s radio show last week:

 “I think it’s come to the forefront because ‘national security’…is on page 6A of the newspaper where only a handful of us read into that. But when people see the videos, when they see the Jordanian burned alive in a cage, when they see the Egyptian Christians who were beheaded…you can see it on your phone, you can see it on your iPad…national security, foreign policy is something over there. Safety is something you feel inside your chest, you feel in your heart.”

Walker has the poll numbers to be the GOP frontrunner. But he lacks the full confidence of his party’s establishment, not least because the Wisconsin Governor seems an odd standard bearer for a “foreign policy” election.

Last month, Walker drew attention to his own inexperience with geopolitics, by citing his battles with Wisconsin’s labor unions as adequate preparation for leading the fight against ISIS, proclaiming: “If I can take on 100,000 protestors, I can take on the Islamic State!”

The comment drew criticism from across the political spectrum. And yet with “the safety issue,” Walker appears to be doubling down on the folksy hyperbole of his alleged gaffe.

By rebranding “national security” as “safety,” Walker is recasting his ineloquence on foreign policy as plainspokenness. Walker seems to accept the premise that to win in 2016 his party will need to make national security a voting issue. But he rejects the idea that doing so requires a candidate fluent in every nuance of statecraft; in fact, he implies that command of all the details on “page 6A” may actually be a handicap. Because if you want Americans to feel the threat of radical Islam in their chests, you need to describe that threat in the simplest possible terms. In other words: You need a foreign policy message so facile, even Scott Walker could convey it.

It’s a clever gambit, and if Republican primary voters are sufficiently exhausted by the Bush family, it may even prove successful.

But in a saner world, it would be an utter failure. Because when you pretend that the goal of neoconservative foreign policy is to maintain public safety rather than American hegemony, you end up spouting a lot of paranoid nonsense.

Walker told Hewittt that Americans increasingly “feel a sense of concern, particularly if they have family members or loved ones that ever want to travel again, they see France, they see Canada, they see other places around the world, not just the Middle East, and it’s a safety issue.”

If Americans look to the shootings at the Canadian parliament and the offices of Charlie Hebdo and feel afraid to leave their country, then we are some the most irrational people on the face of the Earth.

There were 160 mass shootings in the United States between 2000 and 2013. Our rate of murder by firearm is among the highest in the developed world. If a mass shooting in Paris constitutes a profound threat to our national security, how should we describe the murder of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut? And if a politician treats the former as a greater threat to our “safety” than the latter, what do you suppose he means by that word?

Later in the interview, Walker suggests that in order to address the safety issue, the President must “call out Islamic terrorism for what it is.”

Since 9/11, Islamic extremists have killed 27 Americans on U.S. soil; right-wing extremists have killed 39. In that same time period more than 400,000 Americans died in car accidents.

The truth is America’s war on “Islamic terrorism” is only a “safety issue” for those who live in the regions we bomb.

Last week, three international physicians groups released a joint report on the foreign death toll of the American led operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, since the declaration of the War on Terror. The body count came to 1.3 million.

Towards the end of his interview, Walker explained to Hewitt that radical Islam was “like a virus. You’ve got to eradicate it. You can’t take out part of it, or it will come back.”

Maybe if we kill another million people, we’ll finally be safe from such murderous ideologies.

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