That thud you just heard is the sound of the conservative coalition that elected Republican majorities to Congress cracking up and hitting the floor.
The higher the poll numbers for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee rise, the lower the spirits of some conservatives who see the advent of the socially conservative Baptist minister as a disaster in the making for the party.
No doubt some of these commentators support other candidates and are animated less by concern for the party then they are in supporting their favorite. But beyond Huckabee’s questionable record on fiscal issues while governor – increasing the tax burden on the individual taxpayer an astonishing 63% while allowing a sharp increase in spending – there is the nagging, scratchy feeling that Huckabee’s questionable positions on immigration and foreign policy represent a decidedly unconservative tilt to his politics.
In fact, many of us believe he is a virtual clone of George W. Bush – a big government conservative (if there is such a beast) whose policy prescriptions would mean an even greater expansion of government than occurred under the current occupant of the White House.
But the real bone of contention that many conservatives have with Huckabee goes to the heart of the struggle in the Republican party and the broader conservative movement; just what does it mean to be a conservative? Espousing social con positions on abortion and gay marriage while governing like a moderate version of a Democrat hardly recommends a candidate to those who follow other strains of conservatism such as those on the right who are most concerned about fiscal responsibility or federalism. And those who support a strong defense and taking the war on terror to the enemy have not been comforted by many of Huckabee’s platitudes and amateurish policy pronouncements.
This then is the battleground and conservatives are starting to choose up sides. Christians are getting mad at libertarian conservatives who can’t stomach Huckabee’s sly appeals to religiosity – an anathema anyway to those who think that the social issues receive too much prominence in Republican politics as it is. These same Christians see what many refer to as the Goldwater “Leave me the hell alone” wing of the party as being terribly condescending toward evangelicals, manipulating their vote every two years in order to rack up majority after majority in Congress while electing President Bush twice.
The schism first became noticeable during the imbroglio over Terri Schiavo, the severely brain damaged Florida woman whose husband went to court in order to get permission to remove her feeding tube. Schiavo’s parents objected, pleading to keep their daughter alive.
Social conservatives threw themselves into the defense of Schiavo’s right to life with a passion. They were opposed with equal passion by the libertarians who believed the case to be a private, family matter. Before the dust settled, the two sides – libertarians and social cons – were staring across a great divide that only now is revealing itself to be unbridgeable. And the rise of Huckabee has, if anything, only widened the gap.
But why? Huckabee is a genial fellow who doesn’t force his religion down people’s throats (although some of his eye-popping positions – supporting creationism and signing a letter which argued that a woman should be subserviant to a man – would be used against him in a general election). Nor does Huckabee qualify as an extremist.
It is more related to the urban/rural tensions in the party than perhaps any objection to Huckabee using his faith to energize the Christian right. Surely there are as many urban evangelicals as there are rural libertarians. But the heart of the party is still in the south and what used to be called “The Bible Belt.” These Republicans are more socially conservative than party members who live in the urban and suburban centers of the north and west.
They have stood by and watched as what they call the “Wall Street ” wing of the party denigrates their social agenda and takes their vote for granted. Supporting Huckabee and listening to the rest of the party wail about the candidate’s faith and unelectability only makes them more determined to support him. This also goes for the growing number of “Main Street” conservatives who have an affinity with the Christian right and have bought into Huckabee’s vision of a less corporate, more compassionate party.
Is this the great conservative crack-up that has been predicted for years? It is hard to see Huckabee bridging the gap – not after he has tailored his appeal so finely toward the Christian right. He has flipped on immigration and flopped on sanctions against Cuba to bring some of his views more in line with mainstream conservatives. But the switches in positions were done inartfully and raised questions about the candidate’s core beliefs with libertarian and other conservatives who fear the Democrats – especially the experienced attack machine of Hillary Clinton – making mincemeat of the governor’s inconstancy.
Perhaps the only candidate who could successfully bridge the gap between social and libertarian conservatives would be Mitt Romney whose values based campaign is more ecumenical in nature and whose credentials as a mainstream conservative are more or less intact. But Romney has his own well-documented problems with religion and a there is a sizable segment of evangelical Christians who cannot see themselves supporting his campaign for reasons of faith.
Huckabee has subtly exploited this discomfort among the Christian right with Romney, which has also bred resentment among many fiscal conservatives who see Romney’s take charge attitude and record of unparalleled achievement as the kind of tonic that might change the culture in Washington. There has been nothing overt in Huckabee’s anti-Romney campaign. Just gentle reminders of who is the real Christian in the race.
With these forces arrayed against Huckabee and digging up more dirt almost every day – clemencies, improprer interventions with law enforcement, and speeches given years ago where as governor, Huckabee supported giving in-state tuition rates to illegal aliens – it would seem on the surface that Huckabee’s support would start to dribble away. But as vigorously as many in the party are opposing him and plotting his downfall, there is a pushback from the social cons and main street conservatives that is propelling his campaign along. No matter what revelations about Huckabee come out, he continues to surge.
The party now finds itself in a dilemma; defeat Huckabee and risk alienating the base of the party or embrace the former governor of Arkansas and risk losing big in the general election. While the latter is not written in blood, the former is a sure thing. And that’s why in the end, if Huckabee wins through and captures the nomination, I suspect the libertarians, the federalists, the anti-porkers, and the hawks will end up holding their nose and supporting him.
Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House.