Scott Walker on Sunday appeared to take his third position on birthright citizenship in a single week. Under repeated questioning from George Stephanopoulos, Walker ultimately said that he would not try to alter the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to anyone born in the United States regardless of the legal status of their parents.
“No,” Walker eventually said after dodging the first two questions about whether he agreed with Donald Trump’s calls to end the practice. “My point is any discussion that goes beyond securing the border and enforcing laws are things that should be a red flag to voters out there who for years have heard lip service from politicians and are understandably angry.”
That’s a far cry from how the Wisconsin governor answered the same question last Monday. “Yeah, absolutely,” Walker said when asked by an MSNBC reporter at the Iowa State Fair whether he wanted to end birthright citizenship. It was also a stark departure from how the GOP hopeful addressed the topic this past Friday during an interview with CNBC. “I’m not taking a position on it one way or the other,” he said then. “I’m saying that until you secure the border and enforce the laws, any discussion of about anything else is really looking past the very things we have to do.”
So do Walker’s comments Sunday represent his latest immigration flip-flop? I don’t think so. A better characterization of Scott Walker’s position on birthright citizenship would be to say that Scott Walker has no position.
Consider his campaign’s response to a request from the Washington Post following Sunday’s ABC interview for a clear, yes-or-no answer to whether Walker wants to end birthright citizenship. “His position is very firm: We have to secure the border and enforce the laws first,” a spokeswoman said in an email. “He has been saying this all week long. You have heard him say that countless times. I know what you’re asking for but just because you’re not satisfied with his answer doesn’t make his any less worthy.”
If you set aside his equivocations, then, Walker’s position on a practice enshrined in the U.S. Constitution is actually quite clear: He won’t take one. This is not a politically calculated flip-flop; it’s a politically cowardly nonanswer. He’s afraid that if he comes out explicitly in support of birthright citizenship, he’ll turn off those conservative hardliners he’ll need in the primary—and he’s afraid if he comes out against it, he’ll scare away the more moderate voters he’d need in the general election.
Finding a way to generally thread that needle was always going to be a problem for the GOP’s most legitimate contenders, but The Donald’s unexpected entry and even more unexpected rise have made it exponentially more difficult. Trump’s anti-birthright proposal would have once been unthinkable in the party of Lincoln. In the GOP primary’s current anti-immigrant environment, though, it quickly picked up varying degrees of support from a host of Trump’s rivals, including Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and even longtime reform advocate Lindsey Graham. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, meanwhile, have stood out in the crowded field for their vocal—and, in Bush’s case, incredibly inelegant—opposition to the change.
The challenge posed to Walker by the birthright test in specific—and the Trump-led immigration debate in general—is unique. Like Rubio and Bush, Walker is an establishment favorite in a race currently being dominated by anti-establishment fervor. He has good reason to keep one eye on November 2016. More than his two main rivals, though, Walker is unlikely to make it that far unless he can capture some of that outsider energy, too—particularly given Jeb holds massive fundraising and organizational advantages among party elites, and Rubio has positioned himself to swoop in if Bush stumbles. That’s why even as Walker was bobbing and weaving on Sunday, he paused long enough to nod to conservative anger. “One thing that I do want to clarify is I do think that there is some real frustration out there,” Walker told Stephanopoulos, adding: “They’re angry at Washington. Heck, I’m angry at Washington.”
If Walker’s going to recapture the momentum that made him an early frontrunner, he’ll need to find a way to do more than just tell voters he’s angry—he’ll have to show them. To do that on an issue like immigration, he’ll first need to pick a side and take a stand.