Huckabee and the Decline of the Religious Right
Michael Gerson notes Huckabee’s irritation that demonstrably less conservative opponents are garnering endorsements that should rightly be his.
When I asked former pastor and current presidential candidate Mike Huckabee his response to Pat Robertson’s endorsement of Rudy Giuliani, he paused for a moment. “Surprised” was his understated reply. But his frustration was quickly evident. “Our Web site went nuts with people saying they will never give money to Robertson again.”
“There is a disconnect,” he went on, “between past generational leaders in Christian conservatism and their own followers.” Note the word “past.”
Robertson’s endorsement of a pro-choice presidential candidate is a transparent attempt to remain on the Republican train, even as it chugs away from the priorities of the religious right. It also symbolizes a fragmented political movement, which has recently seen Paul Weyrich’s endorsement of Mitt Romney and Sen. Sam Brownback’s support for John McCain.
An unsigned piece in The American Spectator, though, notes that Huckabee is about to get a very big endorsement.
Dr. James Dobson, who has largely been made irrelevant to the 2008 Republican presidential race, has apparently found his man, and according to an adviser, is ready to change the landscape of the Republican nomination race. “He is the leader of the evangelical and social conservative movement in America, and he’s going to reassert that position and leave no doubt that he’s in charge,” says the adviser based in Colorado.
Sources close to Dobson say that within the next ten days he is coordinating an endorsement plan with the presidential campaign of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. According to a Huckabee insider in Iowa, the event would be staged in that state at a rally, followed by a bus tour across the state, and an appearance by Huckabee on Dobson’s radio show, which is heard nationally.
Dobson’s endorsement, according to the Huckabee source, could mean millions in fundraising to the campaign, allowing it to compete at the same level with the top tier candidates Huckabee has been inching toward in the polls after a series of strong debate and campaign appearances. “It would help us get to the Thompson-McCain level if not higher,” says the source. “Dr. Dobson’s endorsement means that much.”
Dobson’s endorsement might also create a domino effect, as other evangelical and social conservatives have largely been withholding their endorsements, in part out of fear of angering Dobson and his many supporters who also fill crucial slots in other social conservative organizations run by such prominent leaders as Gary Bauer and Tony Perkins. Both men have been assisting multiple campaigns, with Bauer recently saying that he was providing advice to just about every campaign that sought his counsel.
One wonders, however, how important these endorsements are these days. There was a time, certainly, when a Jerry Falwell or a Pat Robertson could swing hundreds of thousands of votes. Is that true anymore? Hasn’t the fragmentation of media taken away much of their sway?
For sure, the path to the Republican nomination still goes through the Deep South and Middle America and, therefore, proper homage must be paid to the holy trinity of God, guts, and guns. Beyond that, though, the Moral Majority is long gone and the Christian Coalition is a shadow of what it once was. Are there that many people willing to brave the elements to caucus in Iowa because James Dobson or Gary Bauer tell them to?
A recent piece in The Economist suggests not.
The problem is that Mr Dobson is not all that good at politics. He displays all the characteristic weaknesses of evangelical politicos—overreaching hopelessly and then blaming failure on want of political courage. He was the prime force behind both the fight to keep Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube in place and the push for a gay-marriage ban. But a majority of evangelicals disapproved of the first and a large number of his fellow social conservatives warned, rightly, that the second was a waste of effort.
There have been other miscalculations. He wasted political capital supporting Harriet Miers’s doomed nomination to the Supreme Court. He strongly opposed the 2006 Evangelical Climate Initiative. He accused SpongeBob SquarePants of participating in a “pro-homosexual video”. He argued that “The Da Vinci Code” “has all the evidence of something cooked up in the fires of hell” (wouldn’t it have been better written if it had been?). He compared Bill Frist’s call for increased federal funding for stem-cell research to Nazi experiments.
The 70-year-old Mr Dobson (who has already suffered a heart attack and a stroke) is increasingly looking like a relic of an ancien régime rather than a harbinger of a new order. The average age of people on Focus’s mailing list is 52. Mr Dobson and his acolytes are rapidly being displaced by what Mr Gilgoff calls a New New Right—people who are concerned about international justice and climate change as well as abortion and gay marriage, and people who are willing to work with liberal pressure groups over issues such as Sudan and sex slavery.
And a goodly number of those folks don’t vote in Republican primaries.