WASHINGTON – “I don’t know.”
Thus proclaimed Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor and Republican presidential hopeful, when asked by The Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Robert Costa whether President Obama is a Christian.
This is not a matter of conjecture. The correct answer is yes: Obama is Christian, and he frequently speaks about it in public. Balz and Costa presented Walker with this information to give him a second chance to answer.
But even when prompted with the facts, Walker – in Washington for the National Governors Association meeting – persisted, saying, “I’ve actually never talked about it or I haven’t read about that,” and, “I’ve never asked him that,” and, “You’ve asked me to make statements about people that I haven’t had a conversation with about that.”
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This is an intriguing standard. I’ve never had a conversation with Walker about whether he’s a cannibal, a eunuch, a sleeper cell for the Islamic State, a sufferer of irritable bowel syndrome or a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. By Walker’s logic, it would be fair for me to let stand the possibility that he just might be any of those – simply because I have no personal and direct refutation from him.
Walker justifies his agnosticism on grounds that he is avoiding gotcha questions. He caused a furor when he used the same logic last week to avoid saying whether Obama loves his country after Rudy Giuliani, at a dinner with Walker, volunteered his view that Obama does not. “To me, this is a classic example of why people hate Washington and, increasingly, they dislike the press,” he told my colleagues Balz and Costa, two of the best in the business.
This is insidious, and goes beyond last week’s questioning of Obama’s patriotism, because it allows Walker to wink and nod at the far-right fringe where people really believe that Obama is a Muslim from Kenya who hates America. The governor is flirting with a significant segment of the Republican primary electorate: those who have peddled the notion (accepted by 17 percent of Americans at the end of Obama’s first term) that Obama is a Muslim.
Beyond that, Walker’s technique shuts down all debate, because there’s no way to have a constructive argument once you’ve disqualified your opponent as unpatriotic, un-Christian and anti-American. On the Internet, Godwin’s Law indicates that any reasonable discussion ceases when the Nazi accusations come out; Walker is essentially doing the same by refusing to grant his opponent legitimacy as an American and a Christian.
But if this is Walker’s standard, it seems only fair that it should be applied to him, as well. Here is what one of those meet-the-candidate Q&As might look like if the answers were drawn from actual demurrals Walker has used in other contexts in recent weeks:
Why does Scott Walker hate America?
“I’ve never asked him that.”
When did he stop beating his wife?
“He can speak for himself.”
Does Walker love his children?
“For me, I’m going to punt on that one as well.”
Does he have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood?
“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know, one way or the other. I’ve said that 100 times, too.”
I’ll go out on a limb and stipulate that Walker loves his country and his family, and I have no reason to think he isn’t a good Christian and a decent man. But he’d be a better man if he didn’t insinuate with his demurrals that his political opponents are not.
Last week, asked about Giuliani’s remarks that Obama doesn’t love America, Walker ducked by saying, “I’m in New York. I’m used to people saying things that are aggressive out there.”
In this campaign, Walker will hear all kinds of aggressive, and defamatory, things from his far-right supporters attempting to demonize the opposition. He’ll have to choose whether to answer the calumny truthfully – or with more shrugs and feigned ignorance.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.