It is certainly possible -- though still somewhat unlikely -- that Mike Huckabee could win the Republican nomination for the Presidency. Whether or not he does, his candidacy is highlighting and exacerbating the severe internal divisions within American conservatism. And barring some bizarrely unlikely circumstance, he cannot win a general election.
Politically-activist Christian Right fundamentalism has been an important component of the Republican coalition at least since 1980. There is, however, a widespread feeling among Christian fundamentalists that they have not gained much in return for their support of the party. Abortion is still legal, gay marriage has become legal in one state and public acceptance of homosexuality continues to increase, American society is continuing to turn against fundamentalism
, and now the Republican party is even seriously considering an adherent of what they consider to be a heretical cult (Romney) for its Presidential nominee. In Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher who quotes the Bible constantly and emphasizes his fundamentalist roots as the core of his campaign, they have found one of their own to rally behand -- a man who, as he himself has said, comes not to them , but from them.
Secular conservatives -- the kind who are more concerned about taxes and regulations than abortion and homosexuality -- are getting nervous. Having encouraged the Christian Right to get involved in politics for almost three decades as a pool of reliable Republican-party voters and activists, they are now finding they have created a monster they cannot control. Huckabee especially worries them because he is not closely aligned at all with secular conservatives on non-religious issues they consider important -- his record shows support for big government and high taxes, for example. (Fundamentalists reply that they've been expected by the secular conservatives to support another candidate -- Giuliani -- who is well to the right on secular conservative issues but not on issues such as abortion which are important to fundamentalists, so why shouldn't the seculars be expected to rally behind Huckabee on the same basis?)
The problem is exacerbated by the candidacy of Romney, who seems to be emerging as the candidate of choice for what might be called the more sane social conservatives -- the ones who are against abortion and stem-cell research but not crazy enough to be comfortable with thinking in terms like "heretical cult" when analyzing 21st-century American politics (Romney was recently endorsed
by National Review
). To them, Romney's membership in a bizarre offshoot religion of Christianity is mildly troubling but does not offset the fact that they judge him the most electable candidate who shares their positions on most of the issues. To millions of fundamentalists, Mormonism is a deal-breaker, an absolute barrier to support. A profound split is hardening between fundamentalists who can't stomach Romney and old-line secular conservatives who can't stomach Huckabee. (And both sides seem to have finally decided they can't stomach Giuliani, who would probably have the best chance in the general election of any Republican.) To make matters worse, the recent public airing of fundamentalist hostility to Mormonism is antagonizing Mormons
, who have long been one of the most reliably Republican-voting blocs of all.
How this battle within conservatism will pan out, I can't predict. But I do know that anyone who thinks Huckabee is too un-serious a candidate to win the nomination is fooling himself. The Christian Right is the most powerful bloc in the Republican coalition, and largely lives in a separate subculture and even a separate reality of its own, where their vitriol against abortion, their weird obsession with homosexuality, and their rejection of the central truth of modern science (evolution) are normal and un-embarrassing and even admirable.
What I am
sure of is that if Huckabee is the nominee, his chances of winning the general election are just about zero. Huckabee is, as I noted above, a supporter of big government and high taxes; he's ignorant of the world outside the United States; he's a fervent defender of the "rights" of illegal aliens. In other words, President Huckabee would be exactly like the current President Bush except with an even more emphatic tilt toward religious wingnuttery -- not exactly what the country is now hungering for.
To look at it more analytically, either a Huckabee or a Romney nomination would divide conservatives, but in different ways. If Romney is the nominee and the fundamentalists are disgruntled, they might stay home on election day, but I can't imagine many of them actually going so far as to vote for the Democrat. But if Huckabee is the nominee, it's much easier to imagine significant numbers of disgruntled secular conservatives actually voting for Hillary Clinton. Given the choice between two big-government candidates, at least some of them would prefer the one who isn't
an alarming and naive Bible-thumper -- and Hillary would have some credibility in positioning herself as tougher, or at least more knowledgeable, than Huckabee on the Islamic threat.
One of the most intelligent of the secular conservatives, Andrew Sullivan, put the situation bluntly here
:And that is why part of me, I confess, wants Huckabee to win. So he can lose. So the GOP can lose - as spectacularly and humilia-tingly as possible. If we are to rid conservatism of this theocratic cancer, we need to start over. Maybe it has to get worse before it can get better. But it is certainly too late for fellow-traveling Christianists like Lowry and Krauthammer to start whining now. This is their party. And they asked for every last bit of it.
I came to the conclusion some time ago that I don't
want to see Giuliani nominated, even though he's clearly the best of the Republican candidates. He'd have the best chance of winning the general election, and I don't want to see another Republican administration, regardless of who heads it. And in fact, he'd probably lose, which would let the Christian Right crow that the GOP lost the election because it nominated a man unacceptable to fundamentalists. This would postpone, as Bush's victory in 2000 did, the internal reckoning that conservatism desperately needs to have. Far better for the GOP to nominate the fundamentalists' choice, lose in a landslide, and let the fur fly. Right now the US has only one major party that a self-aware non-fundamentalist can support. That's not a healthy situation. The sooner the Republican party recovers from that "theocratic cancer" and becomes a sane option again, the better for our country.
Labels: Politics, Religion