Thursday, October 25, 2007

Why Not Huckabee?

Gail Collins wants to know why the Republicans aren’t rallying around Gov. Mike Huckabee as their top-tier candidate. After all, if he’s good enough for Chuck Norris…

But the question we want to consider today is why he is virtually the only prominent name backing Huckabee, who is this season’s likable presidential candidate. This is the venerable, if not particularly rewarding role once held by Morris Udall and John McCain2000, and it involves having reporters appreciate you much more than the politicians and donors do.

Like Bill Clinton, Huckabee was born in a town called Hope and became a pretty good governor of a state that doesn’t make it all that easy. (Plus, you have to love the fact that he lived for a while in a mobile home on the Arkansas Statehouse grounds.) He’s extremely inclusive, defending minorities who are illegal immigrants as well as the ones registered to vote. He can be both funny and convincing on the stump.

On the downside, I think he’d be a terrible president. He doesn’t know beans about foreign affairs, he wants to replace the income tax with a national sales tax, and his positions on social issues are far to the right of the general populace. But why aren’t the social conservatives rallying around this guy? Unlike any of the major candidates, he’s still on his first wife and first position on abortion. Once we start getting into the inevitable personal stories of redemption, Americans would have a much better time listening to Huckabee tell how he lost 110 pounds than sitting through Rudy’s 9/11 story again or looking at pictures of Mitt’s 10 grandchildren.

Yet the leaders of the Values Voters keep waiting for one of the top-tier candidates to change — a strategy that any woman who’s had an unsatisfactory boyfriend could warn them is never going to pan out. They pace around muttering that maybe Fred Thompson will start acting more … alive, or that Mitt Romney will stop being a Mormon. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, seems to think Rudy Giuliani has come around on gay marriage. (Perkins should talk to Rudy’s gay former roommate Howard Koeppel about the time the then-mayor promised to marry Koeppel and his partner as soon as the laws change.)

Huckabee’s problems say more about the leaders of the religious right than about him. They’re united mainly by their hatred of abortion and gay marriage, and a desire to win. Considerations like who has the most Christian attitudes toward illegal immigrants don’t register. And the fact that as governor Huckabee spent a lot of time trying to spend money on the needy doesn’t go over all that well with the ones who believe that God’s top priority is eliminating the estate tax.

The problem is that Mike Huckabee is too nice. As he says about himself, he’s a conservative, but he’s not angry about it. He admits it when he makes mistakes, and he wraps his considerable anti-gay and medieval Christianist rhetoric in nice fluffy cushions of gentle reasonableness. But after fifteen years or more of vicious invective couched in bully-boy mockery and the banshee-screeching of the Orcosphere, the idea of nominating a self-deprecating and genuinely likable candidate is too much of a lurch for Republicans, and they certainly don’t like it when he promotes heresy like more spending for children’s health care programs and raising taxes to do it.

The GOP has had nice guys run for president and win; the classic case being Ronald Reagan. (For some reason, I never went along with the “you may hate his politics but you gotta like the guy.” I always felt there was a hard edge to him.) And then they tried to sell George W. Bush as a nice guy, too, but it’s clear — at least to me — that he’s got the phony-nice act down that those of us who’ve been the victim of smart-ass frat-boy bullying know all too well. The first time I saw him I knew he was a genuine fraud.

But the GOP apparatchiks can’t imagine Gov. Huckabee leading the charge of the Right brigade. That’s too bad for them; he is probably closer to the classic conservative than anyone else in the GOP field, and he would represent, without all the issues and fireworks, what the Republican Party stands for. Or used to.