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Walker makes the case for a governor, perhaps himself, as 2016 GOP nominee

M.P. King / AP file

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talks about his call for a special session of the Legislature to delay shifting more than 100,000 Wisconsinites to the federal health insurance exchange, during a press conference at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013.

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin made the case Thursday for himself – or another governor – as the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nominee.

Walker, who has been raising his profile in recent weeks with his new book “Unintimidated” and with a round of media appearances, said at the American Enterprise Institute that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, possibly the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, “is a product by-and-large of Washington."

"To have a (2016 Republican) team that goes up against that nominee” that is “completely focused on being outside…taking Washington on, successful reformers in the states” is a “very compelling” scenario for 2016, Walker said.

Walker also offered what sounded like an updated version of former President George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”

“For future battles not only in my state but in other states and here in Washington, if conservatives are going to win those battles, we’ve got make it about fairness,” he said.

Walker cited the case of an exemplary rookie English teacher in the Milwaukee public schools – exactly the kind of teacher that urban public schools need – who was laid off simply due to inflexible seniority rules mandated by the union contract. Most people hear about her case and say, “That’s not fair,” Walker said.

He also criticized 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney for saying during the campaign that he didn’t need to worry about the poor because they had a safety net. Walker said he found that statement jarring and explained, “Most people in my state who are temporarily living in poverty -- or temporarily dependent on government -- don’t want to be. It’s not something they aspire to.”

Similarly, he argued, with immigrants “from India, from Mexico, from Germany or anywhere else around the world. I can’t tell you anybody I recall meeting…who said, 'The reason I came here to America was to become dependent on government.’”

Until Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas came along, Walker was the man Democrats most loved to hate. The Wisconsin governor became a hero to conservatives two years ago by taking on his state’s public sector labor unions, defeating them, and then, to top it all off, overcoming a 2012 recall effort backed by progressives across America. Walker even won 38 percent of self-identified union members, exit polls from the 2012 recall election indicated.  

The labor law measure that Walker signed abolished most collective bargaining rights for most public employees and required them to pay a greater share of their pension and health care costs.

Walker argued that the key to his reforms and his political survival is that he had “the courage to see them through and then to prove that they work.” He contrasted himself with President Barack Obama and his handling of the Affordable Care Act: “One of the mistakes the president has made is you can’t make your decisions on policy solely based on your political team.”

But Walker has warned Republicans that they should not gloat about the failures in the debut of the Affordable Care Act.

Walker cautioned in an interview with CNBC’s Larry Kudlow Tuesday that Republicans “have to be careful that we don't look like we're relishing this. As much as many of us pointed to these problems early on, raised the-- you know, the red flag of concern, I think we need to empathize with many of our fellow citizens who are going to suffer because of these failures and try and find solutions, not just be the ones pushing it over the cliff.”

Walker said he stuck with his reform plan even though initially it made him unpopular in his state. At one point early in the fight his approval rating sank to 37 percent – “about where Obama’s headed,” he cracked, which drew a laugh from the AEI crowd.

Walker put a positive gloss on the labor law changes in his AEI appearance. The change was done “in a way that was pro-worker. One of the misnomers out there is that somehow I’m anti-union. No, I’m not that at all. I’m pro-worker and pro-taxpayer,” he insisted.

Walker also contrasted himself with another Republican governor, New Jersey’s often argumentative Chris Christie. Walker stressed that he and Christie “are good friends.”

In arguing with your political opponents and in appealing to uncommitted voters, Walker said “the demeanor you have has an impact.”

“In New Jersey, the way that Chris has reacted to things actually fits,” he said.

“I’m willing to speak out, but I’m not going to call you an idiot,” Walker explained. He added, “On the East Coast maybe it’s a little bit different.”