Scott Walker is the governor of Wisconsin. He wouldn’t be worth the time of anyone outside his home state, except that he is probably going to run for president in 2016. And at the moment, at least, he is doing rather well in the polls in early-primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. This means we are duty-bound to take his presence seriously, even though—as the evidence will prove—we have every reason to regard him as a joke.
OK, maybe not every reason. He was, after all, just elected governor for the second time. Before that, he served eight years as a county executive, which in turn followed a nine-year stint in the State Assembly. Indeed, he has not lost an election for anything since 1990, he is the only governor in history to survive a recall vote and, perhaps more to the point, he has proved a shrewd political operative at key moments in his public life.
Last week in London, during an appearance for a think tank that mostly concerned trade issues, Walker was asked, “Are you comfortable with the idea of evolution? Do you accept it?”
Walker’s response: “I’m going to punt on that one […] That’s a question a politician shouldn’t be involved in one way or the other. So I’m going to leave that up to you.”
In a just world, that answer would signify the end of his presidential campaign. It is both an embarrassing and disqualifying thing for someone with national ambitions to say, and the fact that it won’t hurt him one whit in the Republican primaries is all the more reason for us to yell about it now.
Yes, it’s true that Walker did not outright deny the validity of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. His official position, apparently, is that it doesn’t matter and, to that end, is none of our business.
He is not the first presidential aspirant to strike this pose. Two election cycles ago, Mike Huckabee asserted more or less the same thing following a GOP forum that queried each candidate’s view on evolution. “I thought the question was utterly silly to be asked in a presidential debate,” Huckabee told Real Time’s Bill Maher, adding, “None of us are running to be an 8th grade science teacher. […] It’s really not, to me, a proper ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question.”
Wrong on all counts.
True, a president is not a science teacher, and we don’t expect our commander-in-chief to be an expert on subjects that are not immediately relevant to the job, nor to have ready-made opinions of the same.
But here’s the thing: The theory of evolution is not a matter of opinion.
To the contrary, Darwin’s inkling that species of animals (including humans) slowly change their biological makeup over the course of millennia is as close as the scientific community has yet come to a consensus. It’s a “theory” in the strictly scientific sense of the word. For all intents and purposes, it’s a fact. As plain as the nose on your face.
As such, to be asked whether you “accept” evolution, as Walker was, should be no different than being asked if you “accept” that two and two make four, or that heating a mixture of flour, sugar, butter and eggs yields delicious cookies. It’s not a matter of knowing why or how. It’s simply a matter of acknowledging a truth that has been firmly established by people much smarter than you and me.
So when I hear someone refuse to give a direct answer to this question, I see a person who is either unwilling or unable to see something that is staring them directly in the face. For the leader of the free world, when has that ever been a good thing?
The claim of irrelevance is equally lame, and for many of the same reasons.
Saying that “a politician shouldn’t be involved” in discussions of evolution, Walker implies that his view—whatever it is—has no bearing on his policies as an executive, and we are therefore wrong to even ask.
There are certainly some issues about which this is true. I doubt, for instance, that there is anything substantive to glean from a presidential candidate’s favorite movie. Nor should anyone care whether he prefers Coke to Pepsi or boxers to briefs.
There are also components of a politician’s life that are legitimately private and need not be scrutinized by a ravenous press, such as where his children go to school or whom, other than his wife, he might be sleeping with.
Another in this category is a candidate’s religion. Here, as ever, is where things get complicated.
A public servant, like all of us, is free to believe in any god that he wishes, and to craft a personal moral code accordingly (or not). His beliefs are his beliefs, and he can keep them to himself if he wants.
But evolution is not a belief. Like gravity, it exists whether you believe in it or not. You can affirm or deny the existence of God, and no one can definitively say you’re wrong. But you don’t have that same privilege when it comes to settled science.
To deny evolution is to deny reality, and a presidential candidate is not at liberty to create his own reality. If he thinks he is, then we, the public, have every right to know about it before entrusting him with the keys to the Oval Office. If you think a president comfortable with crafting his own reality is not something to worry about, I present the Iraq War as Exhibit A.
Of course, there could be something much simpler going on here: Scott Walker actually does believe in evolution, but he doesn’t want to alienate the apparently sizeable chunk of GOP primary voters who do not. And if that’s the case, it means that he has no integrity. Would this be a fair price to pay for the assurance that he is not, in fact, a man with no sense of reality? As someone once said: I’ll leave that up to you.