Do You Believe in Miracles?



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BY JOHN FEA

When asked how he plans to overcome a virtually insurmountable John McCain delegate lead in the race for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, Mike Huckabee is fond of reminding the number crunchers that he didn’t major in math in college--he majored in miracles. (I just checked the website at Ouachita Baptist University and they have no such major!)

Huckabee’s recent primary victories in Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kansas, and Louisiana may not have been miracles, but one can’t help but be amazed and entertained by the way he continues to win primaries—some of them by large margins--even after McCain has all but locked up the nomination. (The Kansas blowout is especially worthy of note since both of the state’s Republican senators—Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts—campaigned actively for McCain). This all makes for great political theater.

As I have written before on this blog, Huckabee has managed to survive with no major endorsements from Christian Right leaders (James Dobson finally endorsed him the other day). He has managed to survive with very little money (only now is the cash starting to flow into the campaign coffers). And he has managed to survive amid a constant barrage of criticism from radio talk show hosts. His people—evangelical Christians who don’t seem to mind his lack of conservative credentials, particularly on economic issues—continue to vote for him. So much for Rush Limbaugh’s influence in the heartland.

Many in the Republican Party want Huckabee to drop out of the race, but he refuses--sometimes quite adamantly-- to do so. He will not surrender his candidacy to the power brokers of the Republican National Committee. If he did, it would violate the very populist principles that have enabled him to get this deep into the race. Huckabee will quit when the people tell him to quit. His fundraising surge over the last several days and his recent primary wins tell him that the people’s voice is not weakening—it is getting louder.

It has been commonplace of late to compare Huckabee's populism with that of William Jennings Bryan. But let's be careful before we name Huckabee as the second coming of the Great Commoner. There are many similarities between the two candidates, but as Michael Kazin has recently reminded us, the comparisons only go so far. Bryan was much more critical of corporate power than Huckabee. (John Edwards seemed closer to Bryan than Huckabee in this regard). Bryan also knew something about foreign policy—enough to oppose American involvement in World War I. Bryan was a Christian progressive who had strong support from unions. Huckabee has no such support. And perhaps most importantly, Bryan’s populism appealed to a much larger cross-section of the American working and lower-middle classes. In other words, he could win votes from non-evangelicals.

Bryan and Huckabee lived in different eras, making these kinds of historical comparisons difficult. Yet any historian of American politics can’t help but be fascinated by the way the former Arkansas governor has revived, in his own way, a brand of Christian populism that Americans have not seen in over a century.

Can Huckabee pull it off? Only if he can put some of his college coursework to good use.

Not even William Jennings Bryan could do that.

2 comments:

deg at: February 11, 2008 at 7:18 AM said...

As NPR reported last week, Huckabee's populist message has run into a problem that he - as a preacher - should know all too well. Despite the nods and "amens," sometimes your congregation just ain't on board like you think...

john t at: February 11, 2008 at 7:54 AM said...

I think Huckabee's "populism" has been exaggerated by his conservative opponents (like Romney, the Club for Growth, Rush Limbaugh, etc.). He's a "pragmatic conservative."

I do think that evangelical support for Huck shows that the demise of the Religious Right continues to be prematurely written. It's a down year for the GOP, which creates an opening for progressive evangelicals. However, I don't think the salience of abortion and gay marriage are going away anytime too soon. If the Republicans lose this year with moderate John McCain and evangelicals are lukewarm in their support, look for a better-positioned evangelical southern governor to get the nod next time around. Then, the pundits will write about the rediscovery of the Religious Right.

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