Election 2008

Palin, Huckabee and the GOP's 'Hick Factor'

Why did the GOP choose a political neophyte to appeal to the religious right over a seasoned politico? Fried squirrels and economic populism.
In a convention hall filled with ecstatic Republicans taking in Sarah Palin's speech on Wednesday night, one observer seemed a little less than enthusiastic. Mike Huckabee, the former Republican presidential hopeful spurned by party leaders and religious right honchos, must have felt like the hockey mom from Wasilla stole the thunder of the Southern Baptist preacher from Hope.

Huckabee, it seems, represents "Real America" a little too much for the Republican Party's taste.

On the surface, Palin's and Huckabee's appeals to the religious right seem indistinguishable -- in fact, Huckabee, with a preacher's background and experience in elected office, could possibly have had an edge. Both can sling the red meat on abortion and gay marriage, and both are equally comfortable talking God and country. Two weeks ago, Huckabee was far better known to the religious right base than Palin was; he had built a dedicated grassroots following through his failed presidential campaign, and many of his followers participated in a petition effort to convince McCain to pick him as his running mate. But comparing the instant and unequivocal enthusiasm for Palin from religious right heavies with the uphill battle Huckabee faced to wring a belated endorsement from James Dobson points to something Palin has that Huckabee doesn't -- or something Huckabee has that the Republican Party just doesn't like.

At the heart of the Republican Party's marketing of Palin to the general public is that she is a Real American Mom. Even though she attends deeply conservative evangelical churches with theologies that are alien and even alarming to outsiders, she is portrayed as someone whose life is just like yours, who understands the daily turmoil faced by Real American Families, and who will therefore engage in a pitched battle to save you from unskilled community activists who operate in the nether reaches of Real America doling out government handouts to lazy welfare queens. (Yes, as conservative activist Richard Viguerie was not shy to announce, "cranky conservatives" were responsible for McCain picking "the next Ronald Reagan" as his running mate.)

The heart of Huckabee's appeal also was his regular-ness, with his oft-repeated tales of using scratchy Lava soap as a child, his mother's childhood in a house with a dirt floor, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing and the fact that he was the first one in his family to graduate from high school. He said that his family liked eating fried squirrel. He was, as former Bush adviser Dan Bartlett admitted to the heart of the business base of the Republican Party, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a hick.

That's part of Real America too, but it's the Real America the GOP wants to hide from public view, because it's the Real America it has so completely screwed. It has cultivated its votes with racist identity politics and phony paeans to Jesus. It has faked a love of cultural habits like NASCAR and disdained arugula-eating elites, all while the corporate lobbyists who wrote the laws that have sunk these Real Americans into further economic despair dine at Washington's finest restaurants. Mooseburgers might even push arugula salads off the menus in those haunts if McCain and Palin are elected, but admitting you've eaten squirrel is probably more embarrassing than having to go to your lesbian sister's wedding.

For all their accusations of elitism flung at Democrats, the Republicans despise the Huckabee part of their base. In Arkansas, Huckabee has a long list of Republican enemies who were dismayed by his record as governor, with his small acts of kindness to immigrants, tax hikes to fix highways, and, as one Republican operative put it, his "preacher mentality" in demanding that taxpayers "pass the plate."

In his presidential run, Huckabee spent time decrying the dominance of Wall Street Republicans over Main Street Republicans and accused his fellow GOP candidates of reading off the party's talking points on the economy instead of talking about the concerns of Main Street. For that, the GOP likely considered him a greater blasphemer than the Mormon Mitt Romney, whom many of Huckabee's grassroots supporters viewed as a silver-spooned interloper rolling in venture capital cash.

Sure, Huckabee's solutions to the economic woes of America's working class, like his flat tax proposal and calls to shut down the Internal Revenue Service, were amateurish and unworkable. Even so, Republicans couldn't put his class warrior rhetoric on their presidential ticket.
Sarah Posner has covered the religious right for the American Prospect, the Gadflyer, and AlterNet. Her new book is God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters (PoliPoint Press).
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