I'm no fan of John McCain's (to say the least), but there was at least one moment in his 2008 presidential campaign in which he did the right thing by standing up to the crazies in his party, even if it might have meant some political risk. At an event just before the election, a voter stood up and "I can't trust Obama…he's an Arab," to which McCain replied, "No ma'am, he's a decent family man, a citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with."
Seven years later, Republican voters are still convinced that Barack Obama is The Other, an alien presence occupying an office he doesn't deserve. He might say that he was born in the United States, he might say that he's a Christian, he might say that he loves the country he leads, but they know better. And if you want their favor, so many Republican politicians think, you'd better indulge their fears and resentments and bigotries.
In order to do so, it isn't necessary to actually agree with them on these matters. You can just admit to uncertainty, say you aren't quite sure who Obama is and what he believes. That's the path potential presidential candidate Scott Walker took over the weekend when he was asked by the Washington Post about Obama's religion:
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a prospective Republican presidential contender, said Saturday he does not know whether President Obama is a Christian.
"I don't know," Walker said in an interview at the JW Marriott hotel in Washington, where he was attending the winter meeting of the National Governors Association.
Told that Obama has frequently spoken publicly about his Christian faith, Walker maintained that he was not aware of the president's religion.
"I've actually never talked about it or I haven't read about that," Walker said, his voice calm and firm. "I've never asked him that," he added. "You've asked me to make statements about people that I haven't had a conversation with about that. How [could] I say if I know either of you are a Christian?"
Barack Obama has been president of the United States for six years. He talks about his Christian faith quite regularly. He sometimes goes to church. As you might recall, there was quite a controversy back in 2008 about his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Are we supposed to believe that Scott Walker is genuinely unsure of Obama's religious affiliation? I guess it's technically possible for a politically aware and active person in 2015 to not know the answer to that question, in the same sense that it's technically possible for a lifelong and ardent basketball fan to be unsure what position Shaquille O'Neal played. It could be true, but the person would have to be suffering from some unfortunate brain disorder, perhaps involving having had a metal spike penetrate their skull.
So let's not bother pretending that Scott Walker doesn't actually know that Obama's a Christian. Walker could have said, "He's a Christian, of course. We all know that. Now let me tell you what I think he's done wrong." But Walker also surely knows that had he said that, he'd be showing a willingness to puncture at least one prejudice held by an alarming number of GOP primary voters. That might win him some plaudits in Washington, but it probably wouldn't get him too many votes in Iowa.
After his interview, a spokesperson contacted the Post reporters to clarify, saying: "Of course the governor thinks the president is a Christian." Not that I want to read too much into one word, but the fact that she said her boss "thinks" Obama is a Christian would put Walker in line with what has become a tradition among Republican politicians when it comes to these questions. Whether it's Obama's religious affiliation or his American citizenship, Republican after Republican has treated the question not a matter of fact but of belief. As John Boehner said in 2011, "I believe that the president is a citizen. I believe the president is a Christian, I'll take him at his word." In other words, he might be an American and a Christian, he might not be, there's no way to know for sure, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. By sheer coincidence, Mitch McConnell said not long before, "The president says he's a Christian. I take him at his word."
To understand how weird this formulation, imagine you heard Boehner or McConnell say, "I'll take Chuck Schumer at his word that he's Jewish," or "Jeb Bush says he was born in Texas, so that's what I'll believe." But you'd never hear them say that.
I'm sure that Walker and his supporters think this was an unfair "gotcha" question to ask. About that, they're half right. On one hand, there are many more important topics to query Scott Walker about than this one, and we can hope that we'll get to as many as possible over the course of the long campaign. On the other hand, this isn't the kind of inane question so many candidates are subjected to, like whether they prefer Elvis to Johnny Cash or deep dish to thin crust—actual questions CNN's John King asked Republican candidates at a debate in 2011. This question does actually reveal something worth knowing about Walker, because it's rooted in today's Republican Party.
It tells us that Walker is (as yet anyway) unwilling to stand up to the Republican primary electorate's ample population of lunatics, the people who think Barack Obama is a Mooslem Marxist foreigner enacting his secret Alinskyite plan to destroy America. Depending on which poll you read, those people may constitute a majority of Republican voters. Walker is either afraid to alienate them, or perhaps he genuinely shares many of their beliefs. This isn't about whether you're a "real" conservative; you can be emphatically right-wing on every policy issue but still be tethered enough to reality not to get seduced by conspiracy theories and fantasies of Obama's otherness.
Many knowledgeable people thought Scott Walker had great potential as a presidential candidate even before he began his recent rise in the polls. Perhaps more than any of the GOP contenders, he looked like a person who could bridge the party's key divide, between the pragmatic establishment that supplies the money and the decidedly less reasonable grassroots that supplies the troops. Walker is both an enemy of labor unions and an evangelical Christian himself (if he becomes president, Walker will be the first evangelical in the office since Jimmy Carter; contrary to popular belief, George W. Bush is not an evangelical). While he's still unfamiliar to most of the country, Walker is the the kind of candidate that the Koch brothers and the Tea Party protester with a sign accusing Obama of being a communist can all get excited about.
So it's important to know just how much he represents each of those groups, both in policy and in spirit. He just offered us one important clue. It won't be the last.