Here's a remarkable factoid: 14 of the 22 men who served as U.S. president in the 19th century had a college degree. Four, in fact, had master's degrees. Yet here we are in the 21st century, and a college dropout is considered one of top candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.
I can already hear the Democrats and liberals howling that Gov. Scott Walker has no chance of becoming president. But Walker has in recent months been steadily moving up the list of possible GOP candidates discussed in national stories, sometimes listed just after Chris Christie and Jeb Bush.
Which makes sense. Walker, after all, electrified conservatives nationally with his success in crushing public union rights. He rings all the right-wing bells on the issues, standing out from Christie and several other Republican governors in his opposition to the expansion of Medicaid, which facilitated Obamacare in states like New Jersey. He has repeatedly proven a hard-working and rock-steady campaigner, and he has a strong message: the governor who got things done. He's more conservative than Christie and younger and fresher than Jeb Bush, a new generation candidate from outside Washington who presents the perfect contrast to aging "Capitol insider" Hillary Clinton.
But there is that issue of his college degree, or lack of it, which is getting a fair amount of discussion. The wonky Washington Post column "The Fix" had fun with the issue, informing us that a majority of Americans are just as uneducated as Walker, with just 31.7% of adults over the age of 25 having finished college as of 2013.
But it's a rather different story for presidents in history, the vast majority of whom had a college degree. The last one without it was Harry Truman; before that you'd have to go all the way back to Grover Cleveland.
And presidents of late have been even more educated: The last three had postgraduate degrees, "The Fix" tells us. That could raise an issue for Walker, columnist Philip Bump concludes.
The International Business Times also devoted an entire story to Walker's lack of a degree and found several university eggheads who didn't seem to think it was a problem. Allan Louden, a communications professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., told the business publication that "It might actually be a message that works" because some voters feel they are dismissed by intellectuals. "There's a lot of, 'You can't trust these people. You can't trust Harvard and Princeton.'"
Except that voters keep electing those smarty-pants candidates.
Easily the funniest take was offered by New York Times columnist Gail Collins, who it turns out attended Milwaukee's Marquette University, just like Walker. "Had a great time," she writes. "Unlike Walker, I got a degree. Only one of us is a governor, so there's a point for the dropouts right there."
But Walker's problem, she suggests, is that he keeps changing the story on why he didn't graduate: "Walker claimed that he was about to get the rest of his credits while he was working, but then he got married. (Actually, as PolitiFact Wisconsin reported in a stupendously thorough investigation of this matter, he had several years of potential night school time before he wed.) Then he was going to go, but he was county executive and too busy. And it keeps going on.
"'Maybe in the next few years,' he told reporters in 2013.
"This is a bad sign. I think I speak for all of us when I say we do not want to hear any arguments that we should elect Walker president so he'll have time to finish his senior year credits."
The changing story bespeaks a discomfort with the issue. As Brian Sikma of the Wisconsin-based conservative group Media Trackers told U.S. News , the issue has "a lot of potential to be an unnecessary but powerful distraction.... Lack of a college degree will on its own not turn people off, but if used as part of a narrative, then it could be a devastating fact."
That's why some of Walker's top aides had "urged him over the years to finish the degree and take it off the table issue," as a July 2010 as a potential campaign story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
The issue came up briefly when Walker ran for Milwaukee county executive and got more discussion when he ran for governor, but has already generated more press now that he seeks national office. It's Walker's Achilles heel, and could hurt him the most should he win the Republican nomination. Because in the privacy of the voting booth, undecided voters may be looking for the one decisive reason to choose among two candidates. And they may wonder why a man who feels qualified to be "the leader of the free world" didn't have the discipline to finish getting his college degree.
Bruce Murphy is the editor of UrbanMilwaukee.