Commentary: Huckabee's rise is a warning to the Republican leadership
WASHINGTON -- The rise of Mike Huckabee has put the fear of God into the Republican establishment. Its alarm has nothing to do with the Almighty. The Huckabee surge represents a break with what has been standard operating procedure within the GOP...
WASHINGTON -- The rise of Mike Huckabee has put the fear of God into the Republican establishment. Its alarm has nothing to do with the Almighty.
The Huckabee surge represents a break with what has been standard operating procedure within the GOP for more than a generation. Huckabee's evangelical Christian army in Iowa ignored the importuning of entrenched leaders of the religious right and decided to go with one of their own.
Huckabee himself preaches a gospel of populism that rejects conservative orthodoxy on trade, the value of government and the beneficence of Wall Street.
Huckabee is no William Jennings Bryan, the great fundamentalist scourge of big business a century ago. But Bryan would have appreciated Huckabee's attack on politics as a mere extension of economics. "If it was all about the money," Huckabee said recently, "then we might as well put the presidency up on eBay."
The former Arkansas governor has exposed a fault line within the Republican coalition. The old religious right is dying because it subordinated the actual views of its followers to short-term political calculations. The white evangelical electorate is tired of taking orders from politicians who care more about protecting the wealthy than ending abortion, more about deregulation than family values.
That's why Washington-focused religious operatives tied to old GOP strategies are being outdone by new leaders with authentic grass-roots followings -- people such as Michael Farris, who chairs the Home School Legal Defense Association and supports Huckabee.
The paradox is that if Huckabee's candidacy poses a mortal threat to Mitt Romney in Iowa, the Baptist minister's rise may boost Romney's effort to consolidate establishment conservative support. This could help Romney in his Jan. 8 showdown with John McCain in New Hampshire.
The rallying to Romney began earlier in the campaign, says David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, because many on the right saw Rudy Giuliani's candidacy as the main threat to their cause. But Huckabee poses an even greater danger since Giuliani, despite his apostasy on abortion and gay rights, has pledged fealty to economic and foreign policy conservatism.
Huckabee, said Keene, a Romney supporter, "is not a conservative who is an evangelical, he's an evangelical populist. It's not the evangelical part that conservatives worry about. It's the populism. It's his economic views."
National Review -- the canonical publication of the conservative movement -- rallied behind Romney last week in an editorial that was candid about the dangers facing the conservative coalition.
Giuliani and Huckabee, the magazine's editors argued, "would pull apart the coalition from opposite ends: Giuliani alienating the social conservatives, and Huckabee the economic (and foreign-policy) conservatives. A Republican Party that abandoned either limited government or moral standards would be much diminished in the service it could give the country."
But the crackup that National Review fears may already be happening. In a report issued in May 2005, the Pew Research Center pointed to the rise of a new group within the Republican alliance it labeled "pro-government conservatives." Pew sees this group accounting for just under a third of the GOP's core support.
The report described them as "broadly religious and socially conservative, but they deviate from the party line in their backing for government involvement in a wide range of policy areas, such as government regulation and more generous assistance to the poor."
They sound like Huckabee conservatives -- or what conservative writers Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam called "The Party of Sam's Club" in a 2005 Weekly Standard article that they have expanded into a book to be published next year.
"On domestic policy," say Douthat and Salam, the Republican Party "isn't just out of touch with the country as a whole, it's out of touch with its own base." (Their emphasis.) Reaching such voters requires "talking about economic insecurity as well as about self-reliance." That's what Huckabee does.
The polls suggest that religious conservatism, not economic populism, is behind Huckabee's rise in Iowa. But he is not backing down from his role as a tribune of the dispossessed. On NBC's "Today" show Wednesday, he declared that "the Wall Street-to-Washington axis, this corridor of power, is absolutely, frantically against me." He insisted: "The president ought to be a servant of the people and ought not to be elected to the ruling class." Power to the People, Mike, Right On!
If you had to bet, you'd wager that the Republican establishment will eventually crush Huckabee. But the rebellion he is leading is a warning to Republicans. The faithful are restive, tired of being used, and no longer willing to do the bidding of a crowd that subordinates Main Street's values to Wall Street's interests.
E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is email@example.com .