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A Republican with a message for 2016

By S.E. Cupp
January 30, 2014 -- Updated 1613 GMT (0013 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • S.E. Cupp: Republicans should give Scott Walker a serious look for 2016
  • He says the candidate needs to build campaign around reform, not austerity
  • Walker says Romney wrongly tried to win by focusing on what's wrong with incumbent
  • Wisconsin governor says voters are looking for leaders who have a plan

Editor's note: S.E. Cupp is co-host of the new "Crossfire," which airs at 6:30 p.m. ET weekdays on CNN. She is also the author of "Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media's Attack on Christianity," co-author of "Why You're Wrong About the Right," a columnist at the New York Daily News and a political commentator for Glenn Beck's "The Blaze."

(CNN) -- "The reason why Republicans I think sometimes get in trouble is ... they talk about cutting things. Too many people in our party talk about austerity and not about reform. There's a difference."

That was what Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker told me this past weekend when I sat down with him at a Washington hotel restaurant to discuss a broad range of topics, including the path forward for the GOP. Whether talking about entitlement reform, food stamps, unemployment benefits or social programs, his one word mantra? Emphasize "reform."

"The mistake I think we often make is," he continued, "if we're the party of no, and we're the party of austerity, the people of this country want more. The difference is, the left offers them more government, more benefits, more assistance. We should offer them more freedom, more opportunity, more prosperity."

S.E. Cupp
S.E. Cupp

Over the course of our interview, the word "reform" came up dozens of times -- in his assessment of Mitt Romney, his support for Chris Christie, his praise for Paul Ryan and his advice to Republican 2016 contenders. In fact, the advice was free-flowing all around. And why not?

Walker's frequently discussed in conservative circles as a 2016 contender himself, and after winning a bruising collective bargaining dispute and surviving a vicious recall effort in 2012, he's earned a reputation as a fighter -- and the political capital that comes along with it.

According to the most recent polling, 51% approve of his job as governor, in a blue state that hasn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984.

Walker: Obamacare is law
Walker: Give people skills to get jobs

"We are, like most Midwestern battleground states, very evenly divided among parties. I won with 7.5% of the vote in the recall election. A few months later, Barack Obama carried the state by about the same margin, about 7 points."

What he calls the "Walker/Obama" voter might sound like a creature out of political mythology, but he believes it's the key to a Republican winning in 2016.

"What we found is, to win the center, which is the key to winning states like Wisconsin, you don't have to move to the center. That's the misnomer [in Washington] that suddenly you've got to change your core principles and move more to the center. It's just the opposite with voters who are independents or swing voters or undecided, persuadable voters.

"They want leadership. We've shown that the same people who voted for me, there's a significant number of those middle-of-the-road voters who then turned around and voted for Obama." (President Obama is visiting Wisconsin on Thursday as part of his post-State of the Union tour.)

And even though he disagrees with almost all of Obama's policies, he believes Republicans could stand to take a page from his book.

"The one thing I'll give him his due on, he's a committed liberal. He's leading, he's got big, bold ideas, Obamacare being a prime example. I think that's bad policy, but at least I won't fault him for leading."

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker says the Republican message should be \
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker says the Republican message should be "reform."

After inheriting a $3.6 billion budget deficit in 2011, Walker now sits comfortably on a gross general fund balance of more than $1 billion, with $279 million in a rainy day fund. He's helped lower the unemployment rate to 6.2% from 7% in 2011, and this year he is proposing to give Wisconsinites $800 million back in income and property tax cuts and withholding changes. Personal income grew 4.4% over the past year.

"If you put more money back in the hands of the people, the hard-working taxpayers of your state, they will fuel the economy. If you put more and more of it in the hands of government, they'll take it in the opposite direction."

Despite his reputation among progressives as a union-busting "bully," who was often greeted by signs comparing him to Hitler during recall protests in Madison, Scott Walker is soft-spoken and unassuming.

In a crowded room, you might not notice the 47-year-old sitting governor, sipping hot tea as he was on Saturday. He's wonky and fluent with figures but speaks affably and quickly with a wide Wisconsin accent. "Get me going on the Packers or motorcycles and I can go all day," he says.

But when he believes a policy is deleterious, he doesn't labor to couch his rhetoric in polite Midwestern niceties.

On raising the minimum wage: "It is a cheap political stunt that may be well-intentioned by some, but it has an incredibly buzz saw type effect on the economy. And it's nothing more than a photo-op to pretend that people are doing something about creating jobs."

On Obamacare: "It's been a huge wet blanket that the federal government's thrown on employers who should otherwise be starting to hire more people."

On food stamps: "Last year, I proposed and have since done a program that says if you're an adult in my state without kids and you want to get food stamps, I'm not going to give you food stamps unless you're employed part time or enrolled in one of my employment training programs."

You can't win elections just by being against the other guy.
Scott Walker

It's this straight-forward, principled approach to economic issues that makes Walker a darling in many right-wing circles looking for a conservative candidate for 2016 whose vision is clear-eyed and concrete, unlike what some would say was Romney's confused message.

Walker readily admits Romney wasn't clear enough on his principles.

"I'm not telling tales here because I told him this for months. ... I think [Romney's] a good man, would have been a good president. But you can't win elections just by being against the other guy. You can't win elections with the premise that it's a referendum on your opposition.

"You've got to tell people why the country would be better under your leadership. Both my [recall] opponent and Mitt Romney said, 'My opponent's awful, he's a bad guy, you shouldn't vote for him.' The winners were the ones who actually told people where they were going."

But Walker also concedes there's a fine line between no-nonsense straight talk and the kind of undisciplined and undernuanced rhetoric that's gotten some other Republicans in trouble, especially when it comes to social issues.

Walker says he "obsesses" on fiscal issues because that's what voters elected him to do. He's principled and conservative on abortion and marriage, but hey says social issues simply aren't the centerpiece of his agenda. And he blames the media and Democrats for trying to make them the centerpiece of every Republican's agenda.

"The reason the left wants to talk about those other issues and obsess about those issues is because they can't cut it when it comes to the economy and fiscal issues. They want any sort of distraction to get off-topic, off-message to go on some tangent out there to have people be distracted from what the real issues are."

His advice to fellow conservatives is to talk less about social issues and, if forced to, "it's just a simple answer and move on."

"What I try to tell Republicans is, don't take the bait. Don't change your positions -- nobody in the center wants people to flip-flop just based on whatever they think conventional wisdom is at the time. They respect people who have deeply held convictions. But what they don't want is people going off on tangents on things that don't relate to what concerns them."

As for 2016, he not surprisingly prefers two governors on the Republican ticket. What might be surprising is the model for success he thinks Republicans can channel.

Why not send two proven reformers to Washington to shake things up and take on the establishment...
Scott Walker

"Kind of like Bill Clinton and Al Gore were a little unconventional in '92, but what they said that worked was, we're young, we're dynamic, we're the next generation and we're ready to go. And in this case why not send two proven reformers to Washington to shake things up and take on the establishment that Hillary Clinton's been a part of almost her entire adult life?"

One nongovernor he does like? He's partial to a young congressman from Janesville, Wisconsin.

"Paul Ryan to me is one of the few exceptions out there. I think here in D.C., he's someone that thinks like a governor. He pushes reform, he's bold and aggressive."

If Republicans looking to run in 2014 or 2016 need advice, they may want to listen to Walker, whose message of "reform" certainly has a nicer, smarter ring to it than "blame Obama." And they might want to obsess a little more over fiscal issues, despite the desire of the liberal media to make abortion and same-sex marriage a 24-hour news story.

Similarly, if voters are looking for a candidate in 2016 with proven executive experience, principled leadership and a simple mission to reform unruly and broken bureaucracy, they may just want to pay attention to Walker, too.

+++

Here is Walker on some other key issues that have been making news:

On whether Chris Christie should step down from heading the Republican Governors Association:

"No, I think in the end, he'll be fine. He's going to have his hands full in the next few months. But I talked to him the day that he had his press conference, what two hours almost? Everything that was reported there he had told me privately. So I don't hear a different message.

"And assuming, obviously a qualifier, but I have every reason to believe what he's telling me is accurate, assuming that continues, any of us, not just in a situation like this, but any of us who are pushing big, bold reform, are going to be under attack. I get attacked all the time. Other governors get attacked. I think Chris is perfectly capable of handling that."

On whether Republicans need a woman on the 2016 ticket:

"Susana Martinez has done a wonderful job in a state that's clearly a blue state. Nikki Haley's doing a great job in South Carolina. Mary Fallin is doing a super job out there [in Oklahoma]. So I don't think you have to, but the beauty of any of those three names is that none of them would be token. They'd be three proven reformers and governors."

On legalizing marijuana:

"From my standpoint, I still have concerns about making it legal. I understand from the libertarian standpoint, the argument out there. I still have concerns. I'm not, unlike the President, I still have difficulty visualizing marijuana and alcohol in the same vein.

"I've never experienced this, but I can't imagine people socially smoking the way people have a beer or two at a wedding reception. There's a huge difference out there. So in the end, I understand why people make that argument, but in our state, I don't think we're ready for that."

On an Obamacare alternative:

"The better answer to me is go the reverse direction, to a patient-centered concept, where it's market-driven and patients are the ones in charge and the tax incentives offered by states and the federal government don't discriminate between those who have employer-paid insurance or people who choose to buy it individually or choose to use it for things like health savings accounts.

"Make it the same tax incentive across the board. And in the end, you can make this about controlling cost by people making decisions based on their own health and wellness and not about the mechanical bureaucratic system and trying to reign in costs."

On raising the minimum wage:

"What it really is is dumping a so-called fresh idea off of the heap of 20 or 30 years of bad ideas of the past. And sometimes because a poll here shows people are for it a lot of politicians are afraid to take it on. I say, if you explain it to people it's not hard for people to get. It's not enough to just say 'No, I'm not for the minimum wage.'

"The better answer is to say we should be promoting pro-growth policies that make it easier for employers to not only create more jobs but grow income."

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