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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Light Snow
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Scott Walker's media strategy: Staying mum about the secret email system
Why the governor refuses to say if he knew
Stonewalling through a crisis can work.
Credit:Narayan Mahon

Last week, thousands of emails were released confirming that Scott Walker's inner circle used a secret email system that mixed political and public business in his Milwaukee County executive office. Since then, the governor has refused to answer a significant question: Did he know about this private channel?

He even stayed mum when appearing on the high-profile weekend show, Fox News Sunday.

"Did you know there was a private email account?" host Chris Wallace asked Walker.

"No, again…the district attorney has reviewed every single one of these issues."

"You're not answering my question," responded Wallace.

"No, because I'm not going to get into 27,000 different pieces of information," said Walker.

Since that appearance both the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Wisconsin State Journal have urged the governor to hold a news conference to answer questions. But Walker continues to insist that the emails are "old news" and that prosecutors would have issued charges if misconduct had been found.

Kathy Cramer Walsh, a political scientist at UW-Madison, says it's likely that Walker -- who is up for reelection in November and considered a presidential hopeful in 2016 -- sees no benefit from directly engaging with the press.

"My sense is that Scott Walker and his advisers are well aware of the nature of opinion on him in Wisconsin, if not nationally," she says.

Walsh says the partisan divide is so deep in Wisconsin that the emails are not likely to cause voters on either side to change their minds about Walker. So the question for the governor becomes: "Will I persuade those five people in the middle?"

Rather than attempt to do so, Walker figures there's more payoff in taking his message directly to supporters through emails and social media channels.

"Why talk to the public at large? Instead I can communicate directly to the people who support me, I'll tell them my version of what happened, and that's all I'll say," says Walsh. "[Walker] can speak to devout Republicans who have the potential to give him money. And that doesn't mean speaking to national media, either."

And there could be a real advantage to staying quiet in the long run as he tests the waters for a presidential run.

"It seems to me in our contemporary political context, facts really don't matter much at all," Walsh says. "If Scott Walker doesn't answer the question, when the election rolls around, he can create a story about what happened. But the more information he puts out there, there is a record of what he says. If he says nothing, he has so much more power to create the reality when he has to later on."

Are people ticked off?

David Greenberg, a presidential historian at Rutgers University, says the circumstances have to be right for politicians who stonewall their way through crises: "Usually there is some kind of public support for them that allows them to hang on, and they can turn the public against the media."

Former President Bill Clinton's handling of the Monica Lewinsky scandal is a case in point. Clinton was able to be less than forthcoming with the media because much of the public thought his adultery was a private matter, says Greenberg.

But stonewalling is harder to pull off if it appears that a politician is not coming clean to avoid public accountability, he adds. "You have to be immensely popular or clearly in the right or otherwise people start shifting their opinion. They start asking what he has to hide."

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for instance, has lost support for being uncharacteristically evasive about what he knew about the traffic scandal that has engulfed his administration. Christie, like Walker, is a GOP presidential hopeful for 2016.

"He was known for blunt talk," says Greenberg. "When he shifted into evasion, that was incongruous. You saw a real drop in his numbers."

But there are some significant differences between the Christie and Walker scandals, says Michael Wagner, a professor in the UW-Madison's School of Journalism and Mass Communication who studies political communication.

Christie's constituents were angry about a concrete matter that touched their daily lives -- traffic jams. "People were ticked off, and they needed to hear from him," says Wagner. Christie followed up with a now notorious two-hour news conference.

"Part of the decision for any politician when they're faced with a potential scandal is to try to gauge whether or not people are really ticked off," says Wagner.

In the absence of public outrage, there is not much reason to have a news conference that can generate more negative attention, he adds.

So while mixing county and political business on public time by public employees is against the law, it is perhaps not an offense that riles up the general public.

The reason, suggests public relations consultant Michael Flaherty, is the overlap between leadership and politics.

Leadership requires talking to voters and understanding where they're at, says Flaherty, a former reporter who covered two presidents and three governors. "At what point does that become campaigning and at what point good leadership? It's a difficult line to navigate."

Raising money for the campaign and sending out appeals for votes on the public dime are clearly over that line, says Flaherty. "But day in and day out, any elected leader not working to communicate with voters and build consensus isn't really doing his job."

Flaherty says most people assume politics is part of government. But, he adds, there's a limit. "If everything is political, people get a little dulled to cases where there may truly be wrongdoing."

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