Huckabee and the Decline of the Religious Right

Mike Huckabee PhotoTwo pieces today give insights into the longshot presidential bid of Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and the role of evangelical leaders in the Republican Party.

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.

James Dobson Cartoon The Economist 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.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Climate Change, Guns and Gun Control, LGBTQ Issues, Religion, Supreme Court, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    Endorse him all you want but Huckabee will never make it to Republican candidate status. The only reason his dirty laundry hasn’t already been put out for public viewing is because nobody is taking him seriously.

    If it ever seemed like he might become a serious contender and people start looking closely at this man they will see another Hope Arkansas politician hiding behind religious trappings, a slick politician who isn’t much to the right of Hillary.

    Don’t get me wrong, he is a man of good moral values but he is no conservative by any stretch of the imagination.

  2. Kyle B says:

    Comment in violation of site policies deleted.

    Those wishing to buy candidate advertising should send inquiries to ot*@bl*****.com

  3. Steve says:

    he only reason his dirty laundry hasn’t already been put out for public viewing

    Patrick, This seems a rather blanket statement. Are you from Arkansas or have you followed his carrer to make this statement? Can you name a specific piece of dirty laundry?

    he is a man of good moral values but he is no conservative by any stretch of the imagination

    Do you mean social and/or fiscal conservative? I don’t think Dr. Dobson would endorse any one who was not a social conservative. I’m not sure he’s as interested in fiscal policies. Just as no one candidate can please everyone on either side of the isle, so no endorsement can be for the whole person.

  4. Wayne says:

    “Don’t get me wrong, he is a man of good moral values but he is no conservative by any stretch of the imagination.”

    Compared to Mitt or Rudy, he seems to be. I would like to know more about him. The more he gets his name in the press, the more money he will raise and the more he can get his name in the press.

    Huckabee’s standing in the polls has been rising and is in position to maybe be the dark horse candidate. Then again there is a reason for the term dark horse.

  5. NoZe says:

    I’m an Arkansan who lived in Arkansas for most of his 10 year tenure as governor.

    Huckabee is a very genial, friendly pol who is something of a political chameleon…I think he surprised many Arkansans by not being as conservative as we initially thought a Baptist preacher might be. Nevertheless, he can toe the fundamentalist line before a religious audience. Many have wondered – is he a moderate cloaked as a conservative or a conservative cloaked as a moderate? I’ve taken both positions at various times!

    He can be remarkably thin-skinned and petty. When the local liberal alternative Little Rock newsweekly criticized him too much, filed FOI requests on Governor’s Mansion spending, or filed ethics complaints, he had them removed from his office’s mailing list so they wouldn’t receive press releases. He’s yet to come clean about his role in the Wayne Dumond commutation, and he shades the truth in claiming to have cut taxes 90 times during his tenure.

    He sometimes thinks before he speaks. On the Don Imus radio show, he once referred to his home state as a “banana republic,” pretty inexcusable for a governor!

    He has a weakness, almost a sense of entitlement, for gifts and perqs…he’s accepted free gifts and clothing from political supporters, used the governor’s mansion expense account for his own personal spending, and toward the end of his last term set up a gift registry for himself at Dillard’s so that admirers could purchase housewarming gifts for his new home in North Little Rock.

    However, he also pushed through legislation to increase access to health care for poor children, invested tobacco settlement monies into long-term health care, and has fought against members of his own party who wanted to demonize illegal aliens in the state.

    I personally liked Mike Huckabee, although I never voted for him. I’m still not sure he’s presidential timber though.

  6. Steve says:

    Thanks NoZe. That helps

    Do you think he did anything on the social issues as govenor to warrant Dr. Dobson’s endorsement?

  7. Patrick T McGuire says:

    Are you from Arkansas or have you followed his carrer to make this statement?

    Yes, I live in Arkansas and voted for Huckabee during his last election as our governor. In addition to the info offered by NoZe, Gov. Huckabee bitterly criticized ICE for a raid on a poultry plant that netted many illegal aliens and yet now he talks about strong border security.

    In his last day in office, he emptied the account set up for the discretionary spending of the governor without explanation, the fund had to be replenished by the current legislature. Now while that could possibly be argued as being within his authority, he also had all the hard drives removed from all the computers in his office and had them crushed. Not just erased but physically destroyed.

    Having met him once, I can say he is a likeable person but I reiterate, he is no champion of conservative causes.

  8. Steve says:

    I’m no huge fan of Giuliani or Robertson, but I’m not really surprised that Robertson endorsed him. As a Republican, there’s no clear solid conservative in this current pack running for office.

    However, I take issue with the author of this editorial on the strength of the religious right. The movement is still extremely strong. Just look at the South. It will continue to play a huge role in national politics for many years to come.