That’s why all year long I have warned people to watch Huckabee — because I knew he was a threat to win the nomination. But if he does, Susan Estrich is right: The Democrats will be dancing on inauguration night, because they will make mincemeat of this unethical, insubstantial, unconservative rube from Hope, Arkansas.
I share Mr. Hillyer’s distaste for Huckabee (though perhaps for some different reasons), but one of the reasons why Huckabee has surprised so many is that I think many of us who are observing the presidential campaign keep expecting substance, policy and reason to enter into the process. This seems more and more to be a terrible mistake, and it seems clear now that it was always foolish to expect that. Also, it is far from clear that an “unethical, insubstantial, unconservative rube from Hope, Arkansas” is such an obvious general election loser. The Republicans may lose this year if they nominate Huckabee, but they are likely to lose in any case. It is the very ephemeral and superficial quality of Huckabee’s campaign on the one hand, combined with the strong attachment different groups of activists have with him, that makes it more competitive and threatening to Democrats, who otherwise will have a monopoly on this kind of rhetoric in a year when voters are responding to it. Criticisms of his economics have tended to take his rhetoric about class and Wall Street seriously, when closer observation reveals that, yet again, there is nothing to what he is saying. His great “populist” appeal is, in the end, as real as Fred Thompson’s populism of driving around in a pickup truck–it is a series of symbolic cues whereby the candidate claims that he is “one of us” who intuitively “gets” what “we are going through.” His latest along these lines is to keep saying that he thinks Americans want a President who reminds them of the guy they work with, rather than the guy who laid them off. That’s a good line, especially if you’re running against a corporate CEO who was in the business of turning around failing companies partly by laying off employees, but it is also utterly ridiculous. If Americans do want that, Americans are fools, but then hardly anyone was ever defeated in an election underestimating the wisdom of the Amercan public.
Where George Bush employed his religion to create a feeling of solidarity with evangelical and conservative voters, Huckabee throws in tales of his hardscrabble youth to show that he comes “from the people” and people seem to believe it. (The more I think about this, the more the entire Huckabee campaign reminds me of Gaius Baltar’s little manifesto against the “new aristocracy” in the third season of Battlestar Galactica, except that Huckabee’s rhetoric is far more vague.) Huckabee refers to “fair trade” in one breath and then praises NAFTA in the next, and laments the woes of the working man as he prepares to make said working man pay a 30% consumption tax on everything he buys. The man’s sheer lack of scruples and his ability to disarm Democratic critics by paying lip service to things they care about are, in fact, electoral gold. Everything that makes him so undesirable and objectionable to principled conservatives is the sort of thing that probably strengthens his standing with the general public.
Lack of substance has determined the leaders of the Republican field for the last twelve months. Fred Thompson may be a serious, thoughtful, well-informed, albeit languid, man, but herein lies his problem: when he was little more than a celebrity candidate who made amusing YouTube videos about Michael Moore, he was king of the world among conservatives who were desperate, in their utter sentimentalism, to find “a new Reagan,” and as soon as he became a proper candidate with policy proposals he ceased to inspire much enthusiasm. (Part of this was a result of his awful campaign style, but the pro-Thompson hysteria ended as all emotionally-driven fads must–in deep disappointment and the discovery of a new, more intriguing fad.) Rudy Giuliani is a deadly serious maniac whose foreign policy ideas would spell disaster for our country, but his preeminence in the field stemmed entirely from vague good feelings about him as a “strong leader” derived from memories of him on 9/11. Romney probably is the best qualified executive and manger in the field, but whatever substance the man has is so Protean in nature that no one knows what form he will take next. He lacks substance, but in a very different way from the rest–he pretends to have deeply held principles and ideas, yet has only had these profound convictions for the duration of his presidential campaign. The GOP field has been dominated by celebrity candidates all along, while the real candidates of substance, such as Duncan Hunter and, yes, Tommy Thompson (who was probably the best qualified of them all and therefore, naturally, among the first to drop out), have languished in total obscurity. The truly odd phenomenon of this election is the creation of a kind of celebrity out of Ron Paul, who has achieved star status primarily on account of his policy views. The same thing has prevailed on the Democratic side, where novelty (Obama) and familiarity/fame have determined the shape of their field since the beginning. The vastly more qualified and prepared candidates on their side (e.g., Biden, Dodd and, I suppose, even Richardson) have gone down to humiliating and ignominious defeat. We may very well complain about the current faddish leaders, but we need to understand that the election campaign has been driven by the media, both liberal and conservative, and focused on irrelevancies and absurdities since the beginning over a year ago.
A good rule of thumb: if you are an informed, educated and serious person, whatever is most hateful to you is probably what the general public will prefer. This is especially true in electoral politics, where being informed, educated and serious often blinds you to what drives and motivates 90% of the electorate. To the extent that these folks become aware of these things at all, it is usually to dismissively declare them evidence of the irrational in politics. But irrationality has always existed and will always exist in any human political order, and expecting anything else, as I often have done, is a great error. Limiting the role of irrationality in politics, while desirable, is hardly possible in a mass democratic regime with an historically illiterate and media-saturated majority. The main flaw in most of the critiques aimed specifically at Huckabee, populists, restrictionists, etc. in recent months and years is the assumption by those making these critiques that they represent the more rational position, rather than one that is equally or more irrational.