19 February 2008

Uncle John 'n' Huck

Before we say goodbye to Huckabee, who's been so good to us even though we didn't begin to scratch his creamy surface, I want to send you this piece from WJB biographer Michael Kazin on the limitations of comparing Huckabee with Bryan.

Bryan helped initiate the progressive income tax; Huckabee wants to abolish it in favor of a national sales tax that would fall most heavily on the working and middle class. Bryan tried to expand federal power to aid working people; Huckabee opposes universal health care “mandated by federal edict.” Bryan was the first major-party nominee to receive the official backing of organized labor; most unions shun Huckabee, who governed a right-to-work state where Wal-Mart has its headquarters. Bryan hated war and resigned as secretary of state in 1915, when he thought President Woodrow Wilson was leading the U.S. into the hell of World War I; Huckabee strenuously supports the war in Iraq.

How to apply one’s faith to public life has always been a controversial matter. In 1896, Bryan’s Republican opponents lambasted him for using the Crucifixion as a metaphor for his monetary policy. But neither in that campaign, nor during his two other races for president (1900 and 1908), did he ever, like Huckabee, advertise himself as “a Christian leader,” give sermons in churches or call for amending the Constitution to fit “God’s standards.”

For Bryan, who idolized Thomas Jefferson, the separation between church and state was absolute. As an exponent of the Social Gospel, he used the Bible to justify aid to the poor and scorn for the rich – not to install his faith into law. What’s more, he needed the votes of Catholics and Jews, and so avoided taking positions that would alienate them.
Many somewhat reputable gossipers (about the best you can do, really) have Huckabee filling out the GOP ticket as McCain's veep, which makes no strategic sense to me. Huckabee is toxic to the kind of independent moderates and Republicans embarrassed by the prevalence of religion within the party that McCain will need to pull to have any chance at winning. Also, Huckabee won't be much geographic help; if a GOP presidential candidate needs to solidify southern white evangelicals, he's already in a world of trouble.

Speaking of ol' John, there's a burgeoning and admirable effort among liberals to scrub the popular media image of McCain as a straight-talkin' maverick. But their focus is narrow and their incredulity a little forced; McCain is a conservative, but there are good reasons why the right-wing populists don't fully trust him. In particular, many white liberals may not appreciate how great a shibboleth the immigration issue is to the hardcore jingoes, and thus the significance of McCain's relatively sane position go right past them. McCain is seen as someone who goes along to get along with the social conservatives; while he gives lip service to them, they don't believe he's someone who'll fight for their issues once he's calling the shots, especially with more Democratic gains in Congress. He is an extremist on the war and foreign policy in general, of course, and is only a "moderate" because he clears the exceptionally low bar of opposing the torture gulags.

But what of all those right-wing media gasbags and other public mouthpieces who are suddenly overcome with enmity for McCain now that it's too late to reasonably derail him? And why did James Dobson finally endorse Huckabee once the race was effectively over? (Most of the Frat Row conservatives similarly became infatuated with Romney.) My hunch is that they are bailing off the sinking ship so when McCain goes down heavily they can initiate the inevitable meme that he was not conservative enough and won't have themselves tied down to a landslide loss. The truth is exactly opposed; McCain will do the best he can running as a faux-moderate who will still struggle to escape the shadow of the Bush regime. But I don't expect that to faze them.