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Mike Huckabee may have hit upon the right strategy for the early presidential sweepstakes by blending religious fanaticism and a weird (for a Republican) progovernment populism, but the old preacher's calculations may look a little too, well, calculating.
It may be too much conniving even for the fervid evangelicals who are supposed to be once again the biggest clot of voters in the Iowa Republican caucuses, where Huckabee either gains escape velocity or collapses. His old adversary in the Arkansas GOP, Asa Hutchinson, is riding to the rescue to give him an early Arkansas primary, but no one is going to give any credence to another Arkansas favorite-son promotion.
A few analysts who watched Huckabee's send-up at Hope last week thought he might have found a way to separate himself from what may be the biggest throng of Republican presidential candidates ever by combining religious malice with a defense of the big liberal social programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the last of which he had expanded at great expense as governor of Arkansas and pronounced his greatest triumph. No other Republican wannabe takes that tack. Huckabee ridiculed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's suggestion that the Social Security retirement age be raised and pledged as president to veto the current Republican bible, the Paul Ryan budget, because it moved toward privatizing Medicare and Social Security.
Huckabee saw how Republicans abandoned Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2012 when he denounced Social Security as a Ponzi scheme and how old folks turned out screaming at town hall meetings in 2009 and 2010 after all the TV commercials and fliers told them Obamacare was going to destroy their Medicare. (It actually expanded Medicare and extended its solvency.)
But in most of the old Republican sanctuaries, Huckabee's early performance merited mostly contempt and ridicule. George Will reviewed his religious scaremongering, economic nostrums and John C. Calhoun notions about the Constitution and called him "appalling." The right-wing Wall Street Journal editorial page saw no good in either Huckabee's defense of old socialist government programs, his attacks on banks or his screeds against the dark forces that were about to outlaw Christianity and jail divine men like him.
"We believe in political redemption," the WSJ said, "but Mr. Huckabee is already back at the same old stand."
Some, like Ron Fournier, the former wire reporter who covered him as governor, resurrected the sleaze and greed that characterized his 10 years as governor — Fournier said Huckabee used the governor's office as a personal ATM — and his hawking medical quackery for profit.
Being for government this time, unless it has something to do with Barack Obama, actually was a no-brainer. The rich guys at the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity spoiled his bid in 2008 by debunking his claims about being the antigovernment, antitax candidate and of forcing tax cut after tax cut down the throats of Democratic legislators in Arkansas. They published his record of tax increases — more than any governor in Arkansas history — and vast expansion of the state government. They are at it again, so why not just take ownership of your record and set yourself apart from the rest? There are Republicans — maybe most of them — who enjoy all those programs.
But the perils of making yourself THE Christian candidate are the same as they have always been. It gives you an advantage in the Iowa caucuses where only a handful of people vote and in some Southern primaries, but it has never been a token to the presidency, even for the prairie populist William Jennings Bryan, who was God's and the Democratic Party's candidate for president three times.
Huckabee's second coming, this time as God's avenger, resurrected Barry Goldwater, the father of modern conservatism and the Republican candidate for president in 1964. His warnings about people like Huckabee were circulating over the Internet as Huckabee kicked off his campaign at Hope. Goldwater, the former major general and author of "The Conscience of a Conservative," never minced words.
In 1994, when Huckabee was getting his start in politics, Goldwater talked about preachers like Pat Robertson who seek political power by claiming to be on a mission from God. Goldwater had been shunning them as a senator, warning Ronald Reagan in 1980 about lining up with the likes of Rev. James Robison, the Texas televangelist who had mentored young Mike Huckabee.
"Mark my word," Goldwater said, "if and when these preachers get control of the party, and they're sure trying to do so, it's going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can't and won't compromise. I know, I've tried to deal with them."
"I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in 'A,' 'B,' 'C' and 'D.' Just who do they think they are? ... I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of 'conservatism.' "
If the moneymaking evangelists ever succeed in taking over the Republican Party and making it a religious organization, the old libertarian said, "You can kiss politics goodbye."
The year 2016 won't be the one the Republicans kiss politics goodbye — maybe in Arkansas but not the country.