Note to GOP rivals: Don’t call Scott Walker a dropout. Even if he is.

Photo illustration: Yahoo News, photos: AP, no credit, Scott Feldstein via Flickr

If Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who left Marquette University before graduating, wins the Republican nomination, he will be the first nominee of a major party without a college degree since Barry Goldwater, in 1964. If he is elected, he will become the first presidential college dropout since Harry Truman, who took office in 1945.

Does it matter — in terms of getting elected, and for what kind of president he might be?

Politically, Walker’s lack of a degree hasn’t held him back in any obvious way; after winning a string of local offices, he was elected governor in 2010, survived a recall election two years later, and won a second term last year. The voters who might care about his lack of a degree aren’t part of his base in any case, as Chuck Todd has observed. Walker’s opponents have occasionally questioned the circumstances of his leaving; he says he quit school voluntarily to take a job with the American Red Cross, and there’s no evidence to suggest otherwise. But the only prominent commentator in the current campaign cycle to suggest his lack of a degree could be a handicap was Howard Dean, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who suggested on MSNBC that “the issue is, how well-educated is this guy?”

Dean’s comment was prompted by Walker’s refusal to commit himself to a belief in evolution, which he obviously considers prima-facie evidence of terminal ignorance. But if so, it has nothing to do with Walker’s educational career, because it’s a posture shared by most of his rivals, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, an Ivy League graduate and Rhodes scholar who majored in biology at Brown. Rand Paul, who didn’t finish college, either — he left Baylor early to enroll in medical school at Duke — has likewise ducked the related question of how old he thinks the Earth is.

And Dean’s remark — to which “Morning Joe” co-host Joe Scarborough responded incredulously, “Are you serious?” — came across as tone-deaf and condescending to many, including Art Hackney, chairman of the American Association of Political Consultants. Hackney is an authority on the subject, since his firm, Hackney & Hackney, worked on three campaigns against former Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, who during his one term was the only sitting senator without a degree. In each race, Hackney told Yahoo News, Begich’s education was considered, and rejected, as a possible issue.

“All of us felt that within a very small niche of people it made a very large difference,” he said. “We thought it would probably be brought up, but determined it wasn’t worth campaigning on.” As for Walker, who called Dean’s comments “elitist,” Hackney said, “He’s exactly right to play on the notion that it’s elitist. All you have to do is point to Bill Gates. All you have to do is say, ‘Harry Truman didn’t have a college degree; Barry Goldwater didn’t have a college degree, Abraham Lincoln didn’t have a college degree.’”

Walker, whose budget cuts have provoked protests at the University of Wisconsin, may hope to benefit from a populist, anti-intellectual streak among Republican primary voters. But no one should mistake him for a yokel. Marquette, in Milwaukee, is a well-regarded Jesuit liberal-arts college (ranked 76th in the nation by U.S. News and World Report, as the website proudly proclaims) and Walker, by his account, was triple-majoring in political science, philosophy, and economics. But he spent a good part of his time and energy on student politics, and he left 34 credits short of graduation with a mediocre grade-point average of about 2.6. “Certainly, I wanted an education for more than just a job,” Walker explained in 2013, “but my primary purpose was to get a job, and so I left school before finishing my senior year.”


Pére Marquette statue at Jeanne d'Arc Chapel at Marquette University in Milwaukee. (Photo: John W. Schulze via Flickr)

Is there any reason to think he would make a better, or even different, president if he’d spent another year at Marquette? As with all politicians, Walker’s public positions reflect a mixture of personal conviction and calculation about what voters want to hear. But if his philosophy was shaped by the three-plus years he did spend in college, he hasn’t spoken much about it.

Without doubt, the most impressive academic résumé among Republican candidates belongs to Ted Cruz, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School. What Cruz took away from Princeton, based on his just-published autobiography, “A Time for Truth,” was a healthy dose of contempt for the coastal elite that made up most of its students and faculty, going back to his first encounter with his freshman roommate, “a liberal student from New Jersey” who “took an immediate dislike to me.”

Arguably his years there informed his thinking about the Constitution; his senior thesis on the ninth and 10thamendments, which he argued worked together to enumerate and limit the powers of the federal government, has a clear connection to his positions today on states’ rights. But it’s hard to give Princeton too much credit, since virtually every other Republican running for president holds similar views, whether they graduated from Brown, the University of Texas (Jeb Bush), or Texas A&M (Rick Perry).

And, in any case, it’s possible to overestimate the degree to which a president’s experiences, education, and reading will shape his time in office. Presidents come into the job with obligations to supporters, with promises made in the heat of campaigning, and with a staff of advisors drawn from the ranks of the same handful of Washington think tanks and law firms that will shape his or her agenda and attempt to carry it out. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously remarked about either Franklin D. Roosevelt or Teddy Roosevelt — the record on which one he meant is unclear — that he possessed “a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.” But it was arguably true about both of them, and Holmes’s implication was clear: When it comes to presidents, brains and education count for less than the intangibles of character and leadership. Holmes presumably knew what he was talking about, since he went to Harvard — as did both Roosevelts.

Gabby Kaufman contributed to this story.