Huckabee’s inexplicable levels of support among restrictionist voters and a new ad on immigration have prompted a Romney counter-attack, but as attack ads go this must be one of the weakest I have ever seen. Once he prefaces his attack by saying that Huckabee is a good family man who is pro-life and supports traditional marriage, Romey has basically given up trying to gain an advantage on social issues. Trying to maintain “Iowa nice,” Romney’s ad doesn’t really deliver the killer blow and largely leaves Huckabee unscathed. It is an ad that will interest journalists and wonks. Meanwhile, Huckabee’s ad is very simple and says exactly what restrictionists want to hear (”no amnesty”), even though we know that Huckabee was perfectly content in the past with “comprehensive immigration reform” legislation that these voters would regard as amnesty. Of course, Romney is in an awkward position here, since attacking Huckabee’s credibility over his very recent apparent conversion on immigration reminds voters that Romney has had “evolving” views on just about everything. As Mark Krikorian notes, Huckabee has once again endorsed the Pence compromise plan, which many conservatives see as little better than amnesty.
But taking all that into account, why is Romney giving Huck the kid gloves treatment? Mark Halperin lays out the perils of attacking Huckabee, on account of the personality-driven nature of his campaign. For one thing:
Voters seem attracted to the man—not his issue positions, his record, or the quality (or lack thereof) of his campaign apparatus. Taking down Huckabee the Candidate means taking down Huckabee the Man, and that requires the kind of nuclear blast no one is yet inclined to launch.
Meanwhile, the stories that remind voters that Huckabee is a minister who has said things about “taking back” America for Christ will work to Huckabee’s benefit, at least in those states where said re-taking is considered to be a desirable and perfectly normal goal by a broad swathe of Christian conservatives. This is supposed to horrify secular voters, and maybe it does, but it just reconfirms for social conservatives that he has been one of them and on their side for a lot longer than many of the other current suitors. Remarkably, when Huckabee has to drop past statements or reject old views, as he quickly did over the “AIDS quarantine” story, the label “flip-flopper” isn’t being used.
When Huckabee changes his mind, it seems as if it is being treated as a genuine and reasonable change. There is certainly a difference in how Huckabee’s attempts to trick voters and Romney’s deceptions are being treated iin the press. To the extent that media bias is involved, the explanation seems clear: Romney was a liberal who has publicly repudiated his past views (whether he has “really” changed his mind or not is secondary), while Huckabee is a Gersonist and is therefore in many ways sympathetic to therapeutic-state liberalism. In short, Romney has spurned liberals, but Huckabee flirts with some of their ideas and shows an openness to their policy ideas in certain areas. Paradoxically, the conservative attack on Huckabee’s record and charges that he is a kind of progressive or Christian leftist may endear him to the mainstream media and prevent them from giving his record the thorough scrutiny that they ought to give it. Meanwhile, progressive observers seem to be divided between thinking of Huckabee as a potentially tolerable Republican and regarding him as a loon with horrible policy ideas, and this ambivalent response is helping Huckabee maintain an aura of having conservative authenticity that he, in fact, does not possess. (He has to keep running the phrase “authentic conservative” in all his Iowa ads because he knows that lack of authenticity is the thing that is killing Romney and would be killing him, too, if people knew anything about him.) The very incoherence of his policy ideas is keeping his critics on left and right off-balance, because they can all find something in his grab-bag of proposals that they can support or at least tolerate.
Update: Jonathan Martin has the Huckabee response to the ad, which makes effective use of Romney’s own reluctance to veto the very bill that he is bragging about vetoing in the ad. At the time, Romney said, “I hate the idea of in any way making it more difficult for kids, even those who are illegal aliens, to afford college in our state.” He hated the idea, sounding more Huckabathetic* than Huckabee, but has chosen to make the very same issue the chief defining difference between Huckabee and himself. Point to Huckabee.
*I claim my rights for coining this and its related noun, Huckabathos.