Friday, January 04, 2008

What Huckabee Means

There's been a lot of back and forth chatter about the significance of Mike Huckabee's rise toward the top of the Republican field for their Presidential nomination.

Check me out. Check oyster out. Check Jeffrey out.

Oyster and I, especially, have been debating Mr. Huckabee's chances at getting the Republican nomination in the end.

I've argued that he has an excellent shot. In my more passionate moments, I've come close to outright predicting his nomination.

Oyster, in the meantime, has argued that Huckabee's economic populism is an anathema to the traditional Wall Street Republicans that need to be on board financially for a Republican candidacy to work. Here's what he said today:

I never said he didn't have "appeal". He's got a lot of it. But he hasn't fully received the media "treatment" yet, and he's got powerful enemies in his own party.

Here's what I wrote over at Library Chronicles:

For all Huckabee's political talent, and his admirable "intimacy" on camera and in person, his enemies in the GOP are legion. They are some of the most powerful and effective elements in conservatism. They will work hard so that he won't redefine "their" party, and they'll cede a Presidential election if need be, in order to regroup.

Huckabee won't raise a ton of money, won't energize national turnout, has no foreign policy advantage, his dumb sales tax idea undercuts his "populism", and he won't attract independents with his fundagelical social extremism.

I was teasing Oyster about Huck's convincing win over the economic establishment choice, Mitt Romney because I'd been arguing all along that Huckabee represented a grassroots movement more powerful than the divided and uninspired Wall Street Republican preferred candidates.

I would now like to expand upon those thoughts and maybe, in the end, synthesize the points that Oyster and I have been discussing into something that everyone can cherish forever.
It all started in the 1960s.

As Democrats worked to thrust the New Deal coalition into a working political majority for that decade, Republicans reinvented their party. As conservative southern democrats became increasingly unwelcome because of their reactionary stances to the Civil Rights Movement, the Republican Party opened their arms. Barry Goldwater's "law and order" rhetoric spoke in code to Americans upset about African American empowerment. He lost big in 1964 but set up the Republican Party for the next 40 years.

Fiscal conservatives, having made MAJOR concessions during the FDR Presidency, were extremely alarmed at LBJ's Great Society's pledges to redistribute a certain level of wealth via social programs. They huddled down and figured out how to create a new coalition for victory by convincing poor whites to vote against their own financial self-interest in order in exchange for promises to correct the "social injustices" of racial preferences and the other relaxed social moors of that emerged in national discourse during that era.

The Dwight Eisenhower model, the rational patrician Republican, no longer captained the Republican ship. Gerald Ford was a special case for a variety of reasons. By 1966, Ronald Reagan was governor of California and Democrats began to lose grip of Congress. A powerful, largely exclusive alliance was born between social and fiscal conservatives.

One book that changed my life is called Chain Reaction. It was written by Mary and Thomas Edsall and it provides the best historical account of how conservatism came to power from a top-down perspective.

For a bottom-up perspective, let us consider What's the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank. In it, his thoughts on the Conservative stranglehold on middle America are quite revealing.

Essentially, economic conservatives were able to argue that the social programs of the Democratic Party ignored "average Americans" because they were geared mostly to the minorities and rights groups that were fueling the social unrest of the 60s and 70s. Voters concerned with these changes to the social fabric put aside their economic self-interest to vote for Neocons that promised to deliver on issues like gay rights and abortion.

Frank argues that the Republicans have largely done little to reverse the course of social change in America but have been able to reek economic havoc on these small town communities through economic deregulation, etc. He argues that there exists a cycle of sorts because the inability to get results on issues like abortion and homosexuality allows Republicans to further insist upon the pressing need to elect more neoconservatives to office.


President Bush is a PERFECT example of this style. His 2004 reelection campaign relied heavily on the turnout of social conservatives highly motivated by the Bush team's cultivation of homosexuality as a national emergency and by raising the possibility of changes to the Supreme Court that might reverse Roe v. Wade. Meanwhile, his top post-election priority was an attempt to privatize social security. His most defining domestic "accomplishment" has been his tax cuts to the wealthy, not any particular reaction to any of the social issues that his grassroots base find so important.

Things, however, are changing. The coalition between Wall Street Republicans and Main Street Evangelicals has begun to fracture. Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, though it ultimately failed, enraged the evangelical base of the party. Another example is the gang of ten compromise that saved the filibuster option and made the nomination of a explicit anti-abortion judge unlikely. Religious conservatives were mad at their Republican representatives, disillusioned by promises not kept again and again.

Meanwhile, the Republican apparatus had just spent the last 40 years building up the religious right, empowering them, giving them a voice. They reached out to poor whites that felt disenfranchised by Great Society Democrats perceived to answer primarily to minority voters and hippies.

So now, they're empowered. Individual churches and fundamentalist leaders know how to get out the vote, know how to raise money, know how to write letters to Congress. Grassroots religious conservatives in the South and Midwest have become more important as an electoral base than the traditional fiscal conservatives from New York and New England. Because they were largely credited with bringing victory to W. Bush in 2004, there must indeed be a reasonable perception amongst evangelicals that they can drive the Republican Party themselves.
That brings us the the Republican field for the 2008 nomination. The Wall Street Republicans seem to have fallen in behind either Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani. They were the first to begin aggressive campaigning and fund-raising and have been considered the two front runners for the nomination for the majority of 2007.

How do you think grassroots evangelicals felt about those two guys?

Not great is my guess. I think they took it as a big F you. They see Romney's past as a social liberal. They see Giuliani's present as a social liberal. They largely have not benefited financially from the economic policies of the candidates they've supported in the past. Why support Giuliani or Romney when they're to continue to screw you economically without even making any promises on the social end?

Throughout much of the run up to yesterday's Iowa Caucus, every poll showed remarkable Republican disinterest in the race and dissatisfaction with the candidates available.

On the Democratic side, voters have been largely enthusiastic about their top choices, Clinton, Edwards, and Obama. Edwards, and especially Obama, have created a social movement buzz about their candidacies by stressing connections to the grassroots, enhanced by an incredible campaign organizations, personal charisma, etc.
Along came Huckabee.

Without any kind of Iowa organization or campaign bank account, Mike Huckabee was a real long shot candidate. Because of his own extremely impressive charisma and charm, Huckabee was able to sneak into second place at the Ames straw poll over the summer. The fund-raising and media attention boom thrust Huckabee into the spotlight.

Grassroots religious conservatives, the electoral base of the Republican Party, have responded resoundingly to him. Why? Well, he's an evangelical minister that is right with the base on every important social issue.

Maybe more importantly, Huckabee represents something else.

The very fact that Huckabee's economic populism has made him a problem to the establishment Wall Street Republicans is a plus for the grassroots evangelicals.

As Obama and Edwards have won big big big with the rhetoric of change and promises to buck the old way of the Democratic Party, Huckabee has represents an anti-establishment Republican. His charisma is remarkably Obama-like. He's young, he's an outsider. For grassroots Republicans, he's clearly disconnected from a presidential administration and republican mainstream that has sandbagged party popularity for the upcoming race and stabbed evangelicals in the back by failing to produce results on any number of social issues. This makes, for grassroots Republicans, Huckabee just as "electable" in a general election as a Rudy Giuliani or a Mitt Romney or a John McCain.

I've previously referred to it as Obama-envy.

But it could be even more than that. This is from today's New York Times:

Mr. Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, rode a crest of evangelical Christian support to victory on Thursday over his rival Mitt Romney, capping a remarkable ascent over the last two months from near the bottom of the Republican field. A poll of people entering the Republican caucuses on Thursday showed more than 8 in 10 of his supporters identified themselves as evangelicals.

The same surveys showed extraordinary turnout among evangelicals, who represented some 60 percent of Republican caucusgoers. In years past, Republican Party leaders in Iowa put evangelical turnout at about 40 percent.

That's seems to be a pretty significant point. There could be very enthusiastic, very real Huckamania amongst grassroots Republicans energized by this candidate's ability to coalesce support by utilizing the on-the-ground networks of evangelical churches instead of the ad money of Wall Street.


Oyster argues, with a great deal of validity, that Governor Huckabee still faces monumental obstacles in a wide-open primary race. Certainly. The Republican field is still much too fluid to call winners now. Oyster has said, in essence, that Huckabee has yet to receive the full treatment of media scrutiny. This is true. Oyster has said that there are powerful legions within the GOP that consider Huckabee's economic populism to be dangerous and will do everything they can from preventing his ascendancy to the top of the party, even if it costs them 2008.

I may also agree with this. If Wall Street Republicans are unable to take Huckabee down in favor of Giuliani or Romney, they may indeed ditch the Republican party for 2008 for an independent run by their own man, Michael Bloomberg.

I think so. I think they would do this. They'll need to flex their muscles to take back control of the GOP, put evangelicals back in their place, dictate the policy down to the grassroots instead of take policy up from the grassroots.

The question for now, however, is whether or not grassroots evangelicals can continue this show of power through the primary season. Huckabee will certainly finish outside of the top two in New Hampshire, but South Carolina could be a resounding victory. What happens after that? Will he be able to get the money necessary to compete on Feb. 5? I don't know.

I do know that the roots, the most likely Republican voters, those most empowered, outraged, fearful, and activist will be out for Huckabee and out for Huckabee with pride. He will indeed continue to be the evangelical choice. The challenge for Huckabee is to mobilize those evangelicals in enough numbers to trump whatever Giuliani and Romney and McCain can put up on television.

I think he can be the Republican nominee for the Presidency. Will he? I don't know. But I do know that the movement mobilization of grassroots Republicans was underestimated by Democrats and the punditocracy in both 2000 and 2004. It is happening again now, perhaps more naively than ever.


One last side note, an interesting observation about Republican voters.

When I made my prediction for the Republican Caucus results, I, in the end, gave Huckabee only the smallest of victory margins over Romney. The reason I did this, instead of picking the convincing Huckabee victory that I had been anticipating for months, was because of some truly bad foreign policy blunders by the Governor from Arkansas over the last two weeks of the campaign. Here's a link to one of those stories. Given that Republicans have relied so heavily on advantages in voter perception of foreign policy credentials, I thought that Huckabee's factual mistakes would bring him down significantly.

This did not happen and I began to think about why.

And I realized that Republican voters don't look for foreign policy credentials, they look for tough-talk rhetoric. It didn't matter that Huckabee didn't know that Pakistan had lifted martial law, it didn't matter that Huckabee made up that Pakistani illegal immigrants were a major threat.

I remembered the 2000 election and I remembered one little story that came and went without much fanfare. A reporter gave Bush a simple foreign policy quiz in which he was asked to name some leaders from some world hot spots. He flunked it, badly. But who cared, really? Many probably thought the President was ambushed by those questions, I mean how could anyone be expected to know foreign people's names anyway?

And I remembered statistics that I've read about Americans' knowledge of the world. In 2002, as we prepared to go to war, only about 13% of Americans between 18-24 could find Iraq on a map. I don't imagine the percentage of all adult Americans to be too much higher than that.

I realized that rank and file Republican voters don't care even a little bit how much you know about other cultures, other countries, world events because grassroots Republicans themselves know so very little about these things.

So maybe Huckabee's assertion that Benazir Bhutto's assassination more than anything else proves we need a border fence was more shrewd than I originally thought. Because it so played upon the fearfulness, ignorance, and bunker mentality of grassroots evangelicals, it may have even been a genius "gaffe" that gained him more votes than it cost. If he had only said that it justified our second amendment and that more Americans should arm themselves...


jeffrey said...

That's almost exactly right. I think you've done a much better job than I have at explaining why Huckabee is a real threat if he's the GOP nominee. I think he is the one candidate on either side of this race with his finger on the pulse of the real center in American politics.

Oh crap I just offloaded this comment onto the Yellow Blog... but only because I think it's important.

Huck said...

E - Interesting and thoughtful analysis. I disagree with you completely, though, because I think your whole argument rests upon two faulty assumptions: (1) that the hard-core socially conservative evangelicals constitute a significant percentage of GOP voters, or at least the ones who show up to vote; and (2) that these very evangelicals are of one mind when it comes to Huckabee versus the establishment.

I believe the first assumption is just not true. Evangelicals probably do see Huckabee as the come-uppance to establishment conservatives; but they are a small, albeit very vocal and active, minority of the GOP electorate. If nothing more, Huckabee's victory in Iowa will so spook the majority of the non-hardcore evangelical GOP electorate that they will emerge from their apathy in other states to vote Romney, Giuliani, McCain, or (most likely) Thompson, just to make sure that the small minority of Huckabee evangelicals don't determine the outcome. With regard to the second assumption, I also think it's faulty. I regularly peruse the mainstream conservative punditocracy blogs and columns, and I can tell you that even many hardcore evangelicals are spooked by Huckabee, primarily because their conservatism is not just driven by their evangelicalism. And, believe it or not, Huckabee has a rather "un-Christian" mean streat in how he treats other conservatives that is a turnoff to many evangelicals who, though they may be frustrated and angry with the Bush deception, are still decent enough people to expect Christian kindness out of a Baptist minister.

So, in the end, I don't think Huckabee has a snowball's chance in hell. I predict that we'll see Huckabee tank in New Hampshire and continue to fade and lose lustre as the primary season continues.

oyster said...

I love this post. I love the audacious ambition of this post. I love what you're trying to do here.
There is much to cherish here, and what I cherish most in this long post is not even explicit. It's the subtexts and meta-themes in this post that I like the most. They bespeak of future goodness at WCBF. Plus, "oyster" is mentioned quite a bit, and that's also nice to see.

That said, I happen to disagree with a lot of what you say here (mostly little things-- the historical summary is a bit too breezy and imprecise for my taste, but then I'm a picky SOB when it comes to such stuff.) But disagreement is fine: "no friction, no thought", as I like to say.

Beyond the nitpicks, I want to respond to a couple of (your many) key points. You write:

"there must indeed be a reasonable perception amongst evangelicals that they can drive the Republican Party themselves"

This is a big leap. I don't see this yet. We often treat fundagelical voters as a monolithic bloc, but they aren't. And their leadership is certainly not united for Huckabee. (Don't expect Dobson, Perkins or Dr. Land to endorse Huck during the primaries).

Just because Iowa fundagelicals turned out big for Huckabee doesn't mean he'll get the same support from South Carolinian fundies. After the WSJ/NRO/Fox/Limbaugh/Hannity axis sends the "Huck is the next Carter or CLinton" narrative through the echo chamber a couple million times, and the media starts probing Huck's history in Arkansas... I don't think things will look quite the same. Will major religious right leaders coalesce around Huckabee? Don't bet on it. And don't bet on a grassroots rebellion being able to overcome it. Remember, the 2000 and 2004 GOTV operations for religious conservatives was very much a top-down organizational effort. Plus they were motivated by a hunger for power, and then a fear of the dreaded gay ass sex agenda.

"[Huckabee's] charisma is remarkably Obama-like."

Totally different, actually, in my view. Obama's charisma is intense when he orates to hundreds or thousands of people. The people in the room feel closer... to one another-- they bond together, mutually inspired, in the same room as Obama. "Look at him, and look at the effect he has on us", perhaps captures the sentiment.

Huckabee's charisma is much different, much more intimate. He disarms with the folksy genuine charm, but makes his points in VERY accessible language. He connects individually, and sustains that compassionate connection for an ungodly duration. ("ungodly", heh).

Obama's charisma-- when he's at his best-- is kind of like JFK. A cool new political personae, saying inspirational, flourishing words. He seems supernatural, elevated, distant.

Huck's charisma is much more like the nicest guy in the neighborhood coming over to help you with something. He seems to charm everyone individually-- as a wonderful neighbor would, without apparent calculation or pettiness. His sustained, easy-going genuiness is almost hypnotic. But it doesn't create any "I need to touch this guy to make sure he's real" frenzies.

Of course, the intensity of Obama and Huck's differing kinds of charisma is similar, but I wanted to point out that differentiation in style.

oyster said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
oyster said...

I see that Huck Upchuck beat me to a couple of points there. I hadn't read it when I penned my comments, but apparently I agree in the main with his take.

Like me, Huck Upchuck spends perhaps too much time perusing our ideological opponents' blogs.

Unlike me, he'll actually engage in their comments section.

Here's the link that I tried to put in the above comment.

Huck said...

Yeah, oyster, I engage the conblogosphere because I just can't help myself. I mostly go just to know what the opposition is up to, what it is thinking. It also helps me better relate to, if not understand, that 60%-70% of my extended family (and my very liberal wife's extended family, too) that are conservative.

For example, I just had my in-laws over for a week during the holidays. And one night we went around listing our hopes for 2008. Being the good son-in-law, I consciously avoided anything political. Not my father-in-law, though, whose only wish for 2008 was to see a Republican win the Presidency, and preferably Huckabee at that. He's a decent man, but about as fundagelical as they come. So, I need the conblogosphere so that I can continue to be a good son-in-law!

jeffrey said...

Isn't it easier just to listen to talk radio?

Huck said...

jeffrey - For some reason, talk radio raises my blood pressure to much higher levels than conblogs. So, it's generally healthier for me to read the blogs than to listen to talk radio - and I can get the same pulse on conservative opinion on my own schedule.

jeffrey said...

That's funny. I kind of get the reverse effect there.

E said...

....think your whole argument rests upon two faulty assumptions: (1) that the hard-core socially conservative evangelicals constitute a significant percentage of GOP voters, or at least the ones who show up to vote; and (2) that these very evangelicals are of one mind when it comes to Huckabee versus the establishment....

I think you're right to a certain extent on point 2 but I've got to argue my case for point 1.

Most assuredly, hard-core socially conservative evangelicals do indeed constitute a huge part of the GOP electorate.

Please see this study from Pew regarding the influence of evangelical religious beliefs on voting practices.

Really explore google and search it out. Evangelical Christians are a huge segment of what the GOP calls its most reliable voters.

Look at this one:

"Still, the election underscored the importance of white evangelical voters to the GOP. In 2004, they constituted 36% of Bush voters."

This Washington Post article, from early December, shows that Huckabee is gaining quickly on Giuliani in national polls:

Social conservatives comprise the motivated grassroots of the GOP. Really.

E said...

Now, as for point 2. I agree that there are a variety of positions from the religious right on Huckabee. Not everyone loves him, I know that.

Fred Thompson got 13% in Iowa, too.

Some established national evangelical leaders have already decided to support Giuliani or Romney.

This I think sort of adds another element to all this. One of the remarkable things about evangelicalism in this country is it's totally decentralized structure. Anyone can start a Church, anyone can lead people to God. That is why there are so many denominations, booming and busting like the dot-com craze in a cycle.

These are the grassroots. Dobson et al. have tons and tons of influence as coalition spokespeople, but I don't think they drive the movement. Pat Robertson has endorsed Mr. Giuliani but the religious grassroots of the GOP have not become any more trustful of his liberal social views. In fact, Huckabee has only chipped away at Giuliani's 9/11namerecognition-based lead since that endorsement took place.

I do agree that Huckabee will lose New Hampshire, but he'll get third and still have plenty of momentum heading into South Carolina, which he has a great shot at. Then, he's got a shot. The field is very wide open so there are no guarantees, I'm trying to examine this man's rise from no where, and I think it is illustrative of long-term trends in GOP electoral politics, etc.

Oyster -

Definitely I hear you about my brief and general history. I'm a history guy and post WWII US political history is kind of my favorite thing, I was just hoping to provide the context of the narrative I'm currently trying to discuss.

Your prediction that Hannity/WSJ/etc. will be "smearing" Huckabee as the next Carter may indeed come true. I just question whether or not it will demolish him as easily as you seem to think. I hunch that there are a ton of fundagelicals out there that don't really even do WSJ, Hannity, Limbaugh because those sources don't discuss religion enough. The home-school-your-children fundagelicals have a lot of sway in South Carolina, I don't think they read the papers that would host Wall Street republican opinions.

Also, I have to say you're right about the difference between Obama charisma and Huckabee charisma.

Obama is leaps and bounds beyond Huckabee in every respect. And I hear you about the very clear difference in style. You must agree that Huckabee has a great personality that clearly resonates with everyone, even people that think his policies are crazycrazy. These "intangibles" add to Huckabee's mystique as an insurgent force driven by a Christian GOP grassroots rebelling against the candidates dictated from Wall Street.

As for the merits of reading conservative blogs, listening to talk radio, I kind of use both as a shock therapy. 20 seconds on 20 seconds off for about three minutes.

One thing about the difference in opinion being found on conservative blogs in regards to Mike Huckabee's candidacy is that blogs likely involve a more thoughtful, passionate, interested discussion of candidates weaknesses, strategies, policies, etc than what goes on in the head of an average voter. The same can be said for the Dems...

Anonymous said...


If you haven't read it already, you might check out Rick Pealstein's

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus

Good read.