How Mike Huckabee's Evangelical Creds Helped Him Avoid the GOP's Collapse, and Remain a Political Threat for 2012
With evangelical favorites Gov. Mark Sanford and Sen. John Ensign indelibly scarred by sex scandals, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has become the natural Christian right candidate for the 2012 GOP presidential primary. In 2008, Huckabee used his background as a conservative evangelical pastor to electrify the Republican grassroots, emerging practically from nowhere to defeat better funded rivals like Mitt Romney in key primary states.
Since then, Huckabee has remained one of the GOP's most visible figures, hosting his own talk show on Fox News and touring the conservative lecture circuit. But aside from a controversial trip to Israel, where he declared an alliance with radical Jewish settlers seeking to Judaize occupied areas of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Huckabee has managed to avoid the kind of caustic media spectacles that Sarah Palin has generated. He is saving his energy for the next campaign, when he hopes to capitalize on residual support in heavily evangelical states and, at the very least, demonstrate his value as a vice presidential nominee who can bring the Christian right around for an establishment candidate like Romney.
In the following excerpt from my new book, Republican Gomorrah, I explain how Huckabee's success in the 2008 GOP primary stemmed from deeper factors than his positions on the issues. Unlike his adversaries, he understood the nuances of the Christian right -- the movement that controls the party. Huckabee's staying power reveals the movement's consolidation of its grip on the party.
Huckabee's appeal among the Republican base stemmed from more subtle factors than his positions on social issues. Unlike Romney and the rest of his adversaries, Huckabee demonstrated an intimate understanding of the complexities of the Christian right. Most important, he recognized how the movement's underlying culture of personal crisis animated its politics of resentment. His familiarity with this critical nuance was apparent when he spoke before an assemblage of Iowa's most politically active clergy members, the Pastors and Pews conference, in July 2007. Huckabee's speech was a remarkably coherent disquisition on the nexus between private trauma and political conservatism. Echoing his friend Dobson, he insisted that man is too inherently corrupt to stand against the putrid headwinds of modern culture alone and that he must therefore submit to strict Dominionist guidelines:
If you want to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, just tell me that my experience as a pastor lets you know that I don't have a clue about human life and the struggle of it. ... Name me any profession in this country, on this planet where people touch more the lives of every social pathology today....
To that wife who's trying to use make-up not to enhance her beauty but to hide the scars and the bruises from the abuse of some alcoholic husband who beats the daylights out of her every time he gets drunk -- I've talked to her. From the person who's struggling with who he or she may be in the context of a relationship that believes that he's in love with a person of the same gender -- I've talked to him. Name any problem, any social pathology, name any issue that's confronting, and I'll tell you who's dealing with them. It's the pastors of America who see the tears pouring out day after day after day ... who understand life at a level very few people see because these are the men and women who have front row seats to the real struggles of life....
Chuck Colson said it beautifully, he said, "The problem in today's world of this conflict of faith and secularism is that humanists don't understand humanity, but a lot of Christians don't understand Christianity. In part because we don't understand that the nature of man.... The nature of man is not that he's basically good; the nature of man is that he's basically selfish. We have a sin nature, not a God nature. We have a God who made us, but we come into this world broken. We come into this world with a self-centeredness that only grace can fix. And if we fail to understand that, then we will believe as those who are the secularists do, that man's problems are essentially either economic or educational.
Huckabee drew an especially sharp contrast with the signature stump speech of the man who preceded him as Arkansas governor and who was still the standard bearer of the Democratic Party by the time Huckabee entered Iowa: Bill Clinton. Clinton's own campaign for the presidency began in Iowa amid a harsh economic recession. He reassured anxious blue-collar voters there, and later from his Oval Office desk, with a memorable phrase: "I feel your pain." In his Pastors and Pews speech, Huckabee placed the pain of average Americans at the center of his concerns, but he referred to a strikingly different kind of pain than Clinton did.
While another nancial crisis loomed on the horizon, Huckabee dismissed economic tinkering as a remedy to the country's hardships. According to Huckabee's pessimistic vision, which was actually a projection of his experiences in evangelical culture, ordinary Americans are totally and naturally depraved. Scholarships and economic aid would do nothing to divert them from their slouch toward Gomorrah. The pain brought on by Americans' "social pathology" could be cured only through "grace," or submission to an omnipotent Jesus. And only Huckabee, with his background as a crude psychologist anointed by God, could lead the serried masses into the Kingdom. His campaign was for a magic helper, not a president.
Huckabee continued his speech by reminding pastors that the next generation was seething with sin. "We've gone from Leave It to Beaver to Beavis and Butthead, ... " he said. "From a time when teachers carried paddles and ruled the halls to now, where kids carry guns and the teachers are afraid." The only way to heal the nation's pain, Huckabee proclaimed, was to mete it out to the young rebellious ones. Again, he channeled Dobson. "Yes, I do believe that the old-fashioned ways of discipline are good ones," he remarked with a wry smile. "I was the recipient of quite a few. I tell people, 'My father was the most patriotic man I think I knew. Utter patriotism. He laid on the stripes; I saw stars.' True American patriotism!" For the first time, Huckabee's enraptured audience burst into spontaneous applause.
Huckabee's smiling appeals to cultural resentment and anger electrified the Republican base. Soon after his Pastors and Pews address, an ad hoc network of locally influential pastors, many of whom already communicated with one another through Family Research Council President Tony Perkins's weekly conference calls, joined to form the grassroots arm of his campaign. By November 2007, Huckabee was polling even with Romney in Iowa and showed strength across the Bible Belt. Just as his surge in the polls began, Huckabee addressed the student body of the late Reverend Falwell's Liberty University. There, he assured his star-struck audience that his sudden rise was evidence of a holy anointing. "There's only one explanation for [my surge] and it's not a human one," Huckabee insisted, inspiring thunderous applause from the overflow crowd. "It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of five thousand people."
Huckabee made this remarkable statement in response to a question from a student, not a reporter. Political reporters with access to the candidate shied away from asking him pointed questions about his theological beliefs, focusing instead on what New York Times political correspondent Adam Nagourney called his "easy-going, self-effacing, jaunty style." Times liberal commentator Frank Rich likened Huckabee to Democratic presidential frontrunner Barack Obama, writing, "both men aspire ... to avoid the hyper-partisanship of the Clinton-Bush era." With its emotional yearning for postpartisan heroes, the national press corps gave Huckabee all the cover he needed. He would thus remain the "affable," bass-playing Republican counterpart to Obama, not the sectarian ideologue he truly was.
On January 3, 2008, Huckabee scored a stunning upset in Iowa, defeating Romney by eight points. His victory decided the course of the Republican primary. Now, Romney's only hope of salvaging his campaign was to win New Hampshire. But McCain was set to capitalize on substantial residual support from his successful 2000 primary campaign in the Granite State. As Republican voters looked forward to the general election, they were increasingly inclined to vote tactically. With his decades of experience with foreign policy (an Achilles heel for the domestic-minded governors Huckabee and Romney), compelling personal history, and maverick image, McCain seemed strongest in a hypothetical match-up against either Hillary Clinton or Obama.
McCain defeated Romney handily in New Hampshire, then swept into an insurmountable position on Super Tuesday. Huckabee won Alabama, West Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, and Arkansas on Super Tuesday, all heavily evangelical states (they also are among the nation's leaders in divorce and teen pregnancy rates). But with his campaign funds nearly expended and McCain just inches from securing the nomination, Huckabee could claim only moral victory. His campaign suddenly morphed into a massive publicity stunt made up of paid speeches before Christian-right outfits and talk show appearances full of folksy humor and hearty guffaws.