Huckabee Backlash Growing
The continuing rise of Mike Huckabee — he’s now vaulted to the top of the polls in South Carolina [and now Florida!] to go along with his surge in Iowa, New Hampshire, and the national surveys — has created the inevitable backlash.
It’s the fate of frontrunners, especially unexpected ones, to see a close examination of their records and to start drawing fire from opposing camps. While the process can remind one of making sausage, this is the benefit of a long campaign. It ensures that candidates are vetted and, more importantly, we see how they react under pressure.
In Huckabee’s case, though, there’s something more going on. There’s a genuine fear of him from some unexpected quarters, mostly owing to his religiosity.
Peggy Noonan, hardly known for her anti-religious bigotry, sees his campaign as taking us down a dark road.
Mike Huckabee is in the lead due, it appears, to voter approval of the depth and sincerity of his religious beliefs as lived out in his ministry as an ordained Southern Baptist. He flashes “Christian leader” over his picture in commercials; he asserts his faith is “mainstream”; his surrogates speak of Mormonism as “strange” and “definitely a factor.” Mr. Huckabee said this summer that a candidate’s faith is “subject to question,” “part of the game.”
He tells the New York Times that he doesn’t know a lot about Mitt Romney’s faith, but isn’t it the one in which Jesus and the devil are brothers? This made me miss the old days of Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man,” in which a candidate started a whispering campaign that his opponent’s wife was a thespian.
Mr. Huckabee has of course announced that he apologizes to Mr. Romney, which allowed him to elaborate on his graciousness and keep the story alive. He should have looked abashed. Instead he betrayed the purring pleasure of “a Christian with four aces,” in Mark Twain’s words.
I wonder if our old friend Ronald Reagan could rise in this party, this environment. Not a regular churchgoer, said he experienced God riding his horse at the ranch, divorced, relaxed about the faiths of his friends and aides, or about its absence. He was a believing Christian, but he spent his adulthood in relativist Hollywood, and had a father who belonged to what some saw, and even see, as the Catholic cult. I’m just not sure he’d be pure enough to make it in this party. I’m not sure he’d be considered good enough.
The Thompson campaign is fighting back with an “apology” of their own. Mostly, it’s standard Republican primary fodder charging an opponent with being too liberal. But then there’s this:
We apologize for telling reporters that a BA in Biblical Studies from Ouachita Baptist University doesn’t, in fact, make Huckabee more qualified to fight the war on terror than say…Fred Thompson.
While one could retort that having played a general in a couple of movies isn’t exactly qualification for leading a war, either, one has to marvel that a degree from a religious school is suddenly considered a liability in the GOP.
Charles Krauthammer has had enough of it.
This campaign is knee-deep in religion, and it’s only going to get worse. I’d thought that the limits of professed public piety had already been achieved during the Republican CNN/YouTube debate when some squirrelly looking guy held up a Bible and asked, “Do you believe every word of this book?” — and not one candidate dared reply: None of your damn business.
Instead, Giuliani, Romney and Huckabee bent a knee and tried appeasement with various interpretations of scriptural literalism. The right answer, the only answer, is that the very question is offensive.
Eugene Robinson is a proud liberal and one would expect him to be uncomfortable with any of the Republican nominees. But it’s a bit early in the process for him to spend an entire column attacking a potential GOP nominee. He seems genuinely frightened by Huckabee’s rise, though.
Is the thought of Mike Huckabee as president just vaguely scary? Or have we learned enough about the man that we should be hair-on-fire alarmed at the prospect, still pretty remote, that he could actually win?
True, none of his opponents for the Republican nomination inspires much confidence. And it’s amusing to see how thoroughly Huckabee vexes, confounds and unnerves the Republican establishment. You could even argue that the party deserves him. But the nation doesn’t.
As much as Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney frighten Robinson, he at least thinks they’re enlightened men who think about the issues.
Not so with Huckabee, who has defined himself, basically, as anti-reason.
Much is made, and rightly so, of Huckabee’s vocation as a Baptist minister and his promise that his actions as president would be in accord with his fundamentalist beliefs. “My faith is my life — it defines me. I don’t separate my faith from my personal and professional lives,” he says on his campaign Web site.
While I share some of these concerns about Huckabee, I ultimately don’t think it matters. Stuart Rothenberg is right, I believe, that Huckabee is the “None of the Above Candidate.”
The source of Huckabee’s appeal to conservative and evangelical Republicans is pretty simple. He’s not a flip-flopping Mormon or a pro-abortion-rights, pro-gay-rights, pro-gun-control adulterer. And he’s never put his name on a bill with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) or Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), or lambasted the Christian right.
In a sense, Huckabee is the second coming of former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who now seems about as relevant as a typewriter at a bloggers’ convention.
When the real Thompson seemed less energetic and appealing than the imagined Thompson, Republicans fell out of love with him. They were still looking for someone not named Giuliani, Romney or McCain when they found Huckabee, a quirky (diet- conscious former pastor) Southerner who talks in a conversational style, emphasizes conservatism and common sense, and seems to lack the flaws other Republicans have.
My guess is that Huckabee’s appeal will fade once Republican voters start to really pay attention.
Huckabee has zero experience and credibility on foreign policy and national security — the top issue to many Republicans since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the one issue that the Republican nominee may be able to use to hold onto the White House.
With wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia looking like the old Soviet Union, the president of Venezuela sounding like a crackpot and terrorist forces still looking to inflict pain on the United States and its allies, defense and national security issues are certain to be important in next year’s election.
Given the importance of these issues, does anyone think Huckabee has the gravitas, experience and credentials to carry an argument to Democrats on foreign policy? It’s hard to see how he could make Sen. Barack Obama’s (Ill.) inexperience in foreign affairs an issue or challenge Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (N.Y.) credentials to lead the war against terror.
And if electability truly is an important issue for the GOP, Huckabee could be a disaster. While some have argued that he could hold conservatives on abortion and civil unions and appeal to swing voters and even Democrats on immigration, spending and domestic priorities, it is more likely that he would lose conservatives on taxes, spending and immigration and alienate moderates and Democrats on social issues.
That will almost certainly happen in the primaries, though, not the general election.
My former Troy colleague Steven Taylor concurs:
I continue to wonder if this is mainly the result of unhappiness with the rest of the field, therefore moving Huckabee largely by default and how much of it is genuine enthusiasm for Huckabee. There is also the question of whether he can maintain the positioning after several weeks of scrutiny in the press. Such scrutiny could increase his positioning if it confirms the reasons voters think they like him, or it could result in him being tossed on the scrap heap along with the previous front-runners if it ends up he isn’t what people hoped he might be.
NRO’s Jim Geraghty, though, wonders if any of that even matters in this case.
I think that the folks shifting to Huckabee are establishing a gut-level connection, “he’s my guy. He gets my values.” And I don’t know whether Wayne Dumond, or the number of pardons, or in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, or the Cuba embargo or even increasing tax burdens — or any of the stuff in Fred’s “apology” — will break that gut-level connection.
If so, Noonan and Robinson are right.
UPDATE: NRO’s Rich Lowry piles on.
After many false prophecies, Dean circa 2008 has finally arrived. He is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Not because he will inevitably blow himself up in Iowa. But because, like Dean, his nomination would represent an act of suicide by his party.