Yet another candidate is the darling of the media. This time it’s Mike Huckabee who’s all over the airwaves and the pixels because … well, it’s his turn, I guess, and the pundits have already had their fascination with Mitt, Rudy, and Fred. (John McCain is so 2000.) Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker takes a look.
Huckabee. Funny, improbable name; funny, improbable candidate. How funny? Well, have a look at the first Huckabee for President campaign commercial, aired last week in Iowa and now ubiquitous on the Web. In it, the former governor of Arkansas trades straight-faced non sequiturs with Chuck Norris, the B-list action star. (Norris: “Mike Huckabee wants to put the I.R.S. out of business.” Huckabee: “When Chuck Norris does a pushup, he isn’t lifting himself up, he’s pushing the earth down.”) It’s an unusually entertaining spot—or, rather, meta-spot, the subtext of which is its own absurdity and, by extension, that of the whole genre.
How improbable? Well, up until the tail end of the summer, polls had Huckabee’s support for the Republican nomination hovering between zero and three per cent, usually closer to zero. In October, he broke into a trot, in November into a Gallup. In a poll released on Thanksgiving eve by Reuters/Zogby, he is in third place, at eleven per cent, nosing past not only John McCain but also Mitt Romney and narrowing the gap with the fading Fred Thompson to four points. In Iowa, where actual voting will occur on January 3rd, he has surged into what is essentially a tie with Romney for first place.
Huckabee, who at fifty-one is the youngest Republican running, spent half of his adult life as a Southern Baptist minister. Most of his support, so far, comes from the Evangelical Christian right. Yet to those who are not in that category his affect is curiously unthreatening. “I’m a conservative, but I’m not mad at anybody,” he likes to say. His manner and appearance are reassuringly ordinary. When he smiles or laughs, which is often, his dimpled face looks interestingly like that of Wallace, of Wallace & Gromit.
To all appearances, Huckabee’s gentle rhetoric is a reflection of temperament, not a stylistic tactic. Arkansans caution that he is capable of churlishness. But his history suggests that he prefers consensus to confrontation, that he regards government as a tool for social betterment, and that he has little taste for war, cultural or otherwise. He seems to regard liberalism not as a moral evil, a mental disease, or a character flaw—merely as a political point of view he mostly disagrees with. That may not seem like much, but it makes a nice change. If talk radio hears about it, though, it might be enough to keep him from the top of the ticket.
We’re hearing a lot of talk about the election of 2008 being a “change” election, as if that makes it somehow different than every other election in the past. The idea, I suppose, is that the choice is between “stay the course” and “change,” but since everybody — in both parties — seems to agree that sticking with the policies of the current administration would be a disaster, the alternative has to be “change.” I can’t argue with much of that; but ironically, the candidates, especially the Republicans, don’t seem to represent much of a change. All of them pretty much represent the spectrum of the modern GOP; white, rich, anti-abortion, indifferent or hostile to gay rights, and completely sold on the idea that scaring the populace with warnings of invasions of brown-skinned people, be they Mexicans or Arabs, is the easiest way to win the election. And they all seem to be saying, “I’m not George W. Bush, but I stand for just about everything he does.” Some change.
The Democrats, as Bob Herbert pointed out, don’t seem to be much more different than the Republicans when it comes to really making a change. Very few of them are willing to take a stand that represents a monumental shift from the platforms that elected Bill Clinton in 1992 and that which Al Gore ran on in 2000. Perhaps they’re counting on the fact that more people voted for those candidates than their opponents (despite the unfortunate outcome for Mr. Gore), but once again, there’s nothing that shows a marked departure from the policies of the past. Yes, Barack Obama is the first African-American with a real chance at the nomination, and Hillary Clinton is the first woman, but both candidates have been going to great lengths to discount those qualities as being relevant in the election. (By doing so, that’s like saying “don’t think about elephants for the next ten minutes.” Guess what…you think about nothing else.) The only candidates who are talking about real change — radical, breathtaking, rafter-shaking change — are the ones like Mike Gravel and Ron Paul who stand no chance whatsoever of winning the nomination but are there by the grace of nature to provide us with a contrast to the rest of the field and give their fellow candidates someone to point to and say, “Hey, I’m not that guy.”
Calling the election of 2008 a “change” election by the pundits isn’t much different than the candidate on the stump who tells the crowd that “this election is the most important one in the history of the nation.” (Of course it is…to the candidate. Otherwise, why the hell pay attention to him?) But no one on either side has truly told us what the “change” will actually entail…or why we actually need it. We Americans have been remarkably “stay the course” voters for the last few generations, and the changes that have been made in the direction of the country, especially in the last century, have all been from forces outside the various presidential administrations, and the changes those administrations wrought were in response to those outside forces. By most reckonings, the current administration has responded poorly or not at all to the outside forces that have been coming at us. It is in recognizing those failings that we need to find leaders who will provide us with more than just the rhetoric of change but the preparation for the responses to the changes that will be forced upon us.
As John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, each generation is tested in some way; the growing pains of a new nation, civil war, the excesses of corporate greed, the dying throes of European imperialism, economic depression, fascism, the nuclear race, or religious zealotry. How we respond tells the world and posterity how much we have grown — or have not.