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Will America love Huckabee in 2008?

The strong showing for Mike Huckabee in Iowa exposes the disarray in the Republican party and the weakness of more prominent candidates.

John Browne

Topics USA

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Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, is a somewhat surprising front-runner in the race to be the next Republican nominee for US president – in Iowa at least. On 3 January, voters in the Midwest state will start the process of picking the candidates who will represent the Republicans and the Democrats in the November election.

Huckabee’s success is based on two things: the lack of any decent candidates and the fact that he has enthused a small but electorally influential constituency, Christian conservatives, who made up some 40 per cent of those who voted in the last contested Republican caucus in Iowa, back in 2000. Victory or defeat in Iowa will not guarantee ultimate success or failure – some candidates ignore the small state completely – but it can make or break a campaign. Historically, many candidates who do badly after campaigning hard there, and in the other early state, New Hampshire (which polls on 8 January), pull out of the race.

If Huckabee can convince Christian conservatives to turn out to vote again – and it currently seems that he can – he may be able to propel his campaign on to a whole new level. At this stage he has neither the money nor the support to be making inroads nationally. But victory in Iowa would give him enormous exposure, the kind money just can’t buy.

Mel Gibson and the home schoolers

Huckabee is generally described as socially conservative. He is also regarded as somewhat economically liberal, in that as governor he raised taxes and supported increased public spending. He has attracted support from a ‘B’ list of Christian conservative leaders: Stephen Strang, founder of Charisma magazine; Rick Scarborough, president and founder of Vision America; Janet Folger, president of Faith2Action; Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel; and Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values. A couple of ‘A’ listers later endorsed him when he started running anti-Mormon adverts against fellow candidate Mitt Romney, a practising Mormon. These included author Tim LaHaye and his wife Beverly, founder of Concerned Women for America.

More than any other candidate, Huckabee has placed his religious belief at the centre of his campaign, stating that he won’t separate his faith from his personal and professional life. An ordained Baptist minister, he has adopted the typically Christian approach to those of other faiths, running ads directed at the Mormon Romney, pointedly describing himself as a CHRISTIAN LEADER. He also used a New York Times Magazine article to further push the issue, asking: ‘Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?’ He later apologised, but only after a couple of news cycles had highlighted the slur.

However, the Christian right is not what it used to be. Its leaders are either aging or rapidly falling from grace. Some, including Jerry Falwell and D James Kennedy are dead. Pat Robertson and Jim Dobson are not the powerhouses they once were and barely a month goes by without some gay sex scandal involving the Ted Haggards of this world.

Huckabee has gained most from two almost exclusively conservative constituencies – those who saw and loved Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and home-schoolers: people who have taken their children out of the public school system to teach them at home.

The Gibson connection comes via a 71million-strong email list developed through the grassroots campaign to promote the movie a couple of years ago. With major studios shying away from it, alternative means of promoting the movie needed to be found, and were – through churches and conservative email lists all over the country. Home-schooling families apparently make up about a quarter of Huckabee’s Iowa volunteers. They are perfect for this type of campaign, as parents and children can campaign during the day, knowing they can make up for lost educational time after the caucuses. In a 2006 governor’s race in Louisiana, the home-schooling contingent was credited with ensuring the election of Republican Bobby Jindal.

The liberal reaction

Bizarrely, given that neither party is even close to anointing a candidate, the emergence of Huckabee is something the Democrats really fear. While they joke that the Republican Party will commit Huckacide if it chooses him as candidate, their laughs ring hollow – as if they don’t really believe their joke. (The Huckacide joke is one some fiscally conservative Republicans also share.) The reality is, however, that if the election happened tomorrow, Huckabee would be the most beatable of the Republican candidates, no matter who the Democrats choose.

Huckabee wouldn’t be the first folksy governor from Arkansas to be elected president. Bill Clinton has that honour, but Huckabee has much in common with the former president – at least when it comes to the ability to woo voters with down-to-earth good-ole-boy hucksterism, completely at ease with a bible in hand or addressing crowds from a pulpit.

Many Democrats can’t seem to get over the fact that he’s such a god-darned nice guy. He is affable and friendly and plays in a band, and people just like him. He goes against the horned, cloven-footed image most Democrats have of social conservatives. Huckabee also dieted away and kept off 100 pounds, which is worth some points in the obesity-obsessed US.

But the Democrats have always over-estimated the impact of the religious right, preferring to believe that people turn out to vote for a Republican because of his religiosity rather than because he’s just a better candidate than the Democrat or ran a more effective campaign. For example, Democrats prefer to talk about Bush’s relationship with the Christian right rather than remember the train-wreck that Donna Brazile was as Al Gore’s campaign manager compared to Karl Rove’s all-encompassing grasp of the minutiae of what was needed to win a presidential race.

As if to pre-empt the threat from Huckabee, liberals have already started attacking him, highlighting historic statements he made about women (he supported the 1998 Southern Baptist Convention statement instructing every woman to ‘submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband’) and AIDS patients (in 1992 he said that the government needs to ‘isolate the carriers of this plague’). He has also explained why there are so many immigrants into the US (because ‘for the past 35 years we have aborted more than a million people who would have been in our workforce had we not had the holocaust of liberalised abortion under a flawed Supreme Court ruling in 1973’), and he also does not believe in evolution.

Rudderless Republicans, disorientated Democrats

Huckabee’s ultra-conservative views notwithstanding, the 2008 election will likely be very different from the last few elections. No two elections are the same, but the next one sees a Republican party at war with itself and a Democratic party with little self-respect. The absence of any good Republican candidates is not an accident. The grotesque mismanagement of the Iraq war and the relief effort after Hurricane Katrina have torn the heart out of the Republicans’ (self-bestowed) reputation for managerial competency and fiscal restraint. There are as many opinions within the party as to what is the right way forward as there are Republicans. The Democratic Party is smarting from two close-run presidential defeats and two years during which it controlled Congress but couldn’t pass anything because of the president’s veto power.

The Republican field is therefore very odd, with nobody laying claim to an early and consistent lead. In fact, every single candidate has at least one major defect that would likely make them unsupportable by a significant section of those who voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004. Rudy Giuliani is a thrice-married abortion rights supporter with an alleged history of corruption. Romney is a flip-flopper on abortion rights and a Mormon to boot (and therefore not a Christian and unelectable in some people’s eyes). Fred Thompson is unelectably lazy (despite having the rock star image that might do well this time around) and the now-withdrawn Tom Tancredo was running a race-baiting campaign against Hispanics. Conversely, John McCain has a vaguely compassionate immigration policy, meaning that he doesn’t want to deport them all, and Ron Paul wants the troops home, something a Republican can’t want even if it might be the right thing to do. Like McCain, Huckabee is also unwilling to go after recent immigrants from Mexico and regions further south, having given reduced cost tuition to the children of illegal immigrants as governor in Arkansas, but his steadfast conservative credentials on social issues (read abortion) has attracted much support. The final candidate, Alan Keyes, is just too bizarre to even try to characterise.

The rise of Huckabee represents the weakness of the right in particular and of the Republican party in general. In fact, the Republicans are in complete disarray. With Dick Cheney not running and Bush, whose approval ratings are teetering below 30 per cent, staying out of the fray, there is no natural heir and no candidate that more than 40 per cent of Republicans feel even vaguely enthused about.

The right is very weak, intellectually and politically. The Democrats, with their permanent victim status, can’t understand that, and have pandered to the Republicans on almost every level possible since they took control of Congress after the 2006 elections. The absence of a veto-proof majority has backed them into a self-imposed corner, completely unwilling to take on a mortally wounded Bush.

The real election issue is the war in Iraq, but that’s going so badly only John McCain will talk about it, and it’s hurting him. It has got to the stage that at the last Republican candidates’ debate in Iowa, the moderator refused to allow any discussion of either Iraq or immigration, asserting that there had already been enough discussions on the two. (This decision, by Carolyn Washburn, editor of the Des Moines Register, only added to the national media’s ridicule of Iowa’s position as the nation’s first real test of the candidates’ support.) In one way, it helped the Republicans, because by not talking about these issues, it meant the Democrats didn’t have some easy targets for the next day’s talking points. Talking about these issues only highlights the administration’s complete failure to manage the occupation and come up with a reasonable solution to the 12million ‘illegals’ that may be in the US at the moment.

Despite Washburn’s decision, Democrats are using Iraq to target potential Republican opponents, while Republicans are beating each other up about immigration. Either way, the result is that the Republicans are being attacked on all sides, from within and without. The nomination process has been reduced to spats over who is the most anti-illegal immigrant, leading some to suggest that there has been a return to nativism in American politics. Well, if that’s so, it’s a very friendly type of nativism; while the Minutemen and Tom Tancredo may support deporting undocumented immigrants, they do not represent much beyond themselves. John McCain, who heralds from a border state where one would imagine that it might be an issue (it’s not), is shocked at how important it appears to be in Iowa.

An article in the New Yorker by Ryan Lizza noted that the immigration issue has become so strong because of the absence of a true frontrunner in the campaign and the increasingly ineffectual leadership from Bush on the matter. Somewhat like lemmings, the Republicans are forcing the immigration issue further and further to the right – but not because it’s an issue that resonates with Republican voters. Except in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the candidates have forced it on to the agenda, it places a poor fifth, if not lower, on most lists of what ails America; the war, the economy, healthcare and terrorism come well above it in the rankings.

A flawed field

It’s unlikely that Huckabee can win out in the Republican primaries. A lack of money and too many positions that don’t fit closely enough with the Republican platform will likely mean his ultimate demise. But, and this is a big but, with the dearth of good candidates, and the front-loaded nature of the primary process, there is an outside chance his campaign could gain enough steam in Iowa to take it places nobody could have dreamt of.

The Republican hierarchy is in two minds about Huckabee. It certainly fears that the religious right which squeaked Bush past the post twice may sit this one out. Unless somebody like Huckabee is nominated, that is certainly a possibility and would likely spell disaster for their chances of keeping the White House. However, because of his willingness to raise spending and taxes, fiscally conservative Republicans have launched an all-out attack on him, using op-eds and blogs to denounce him as the next Antichrist.

The probability is that voters – and it won’t be many – will go to caucuses with two fingers firmly clamped over their noses. Many will vote to stop a candidate, rather than positively endorse anyone. On the Democratic side, ardent Hillary and Obama supporters exist, but their numbers are dwarfed by independents and Democrats who will vote Democratic to get rid of the Republicans. Even fewer Republicans at this stage have got heartily behind their candidate, and that’s not likely to change, given the flawed field. But the candidate who can attract the majority of voters who are not swayed by anybody else will emerge as the winner.

Huckabee won’t do well in states where religion is not a big issue, especially in the coastal ones. But it could be fun to watch as he ramps up the pressure on the two best-known national candidates: Rudy, the self-appointed Mayor of America, and Mitt Romney, the glamour candidate.

John Browne is a writer based in Washington, DC.

Previously on spiked

Helen Searls exposed the truth behind the ‘Scooter’ scandal. In the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, Helen Searls noted how the bitterness of the campaign was in inverse proportion to the political differences between the candidates, and how the withdrawal of his nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court revealed Bush’s loss of direction. Or read more at spiked issues USA and White House 2008.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics USA

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