The new 30-second ad that Mike Huckabee has put on the air in Iowa represents a quite remarkable step in presidential politics. Maybe my memory betrays me, but I don’t recall a major presidential candidate who made such an unabashed, unambiguous appeal for support on the basis of religious faith. Huckabee, of course, is an ordained Baptist minister. And according to some estimates, roughly half of the attendees at the Iowa Republican caucuses will be Christian conservatives.
The Huckabee ad, entitled “Believe,” begins with Huckabee’s emphasis on the importance of his faith. “Faith doesn’t just influence me,” he says. “It really defines me.” A few seconds later, the words “Christian Leader” are emblazoned on the screen. Even TV evangelist Pat Robertson, a leader in the emergence of Christian conservatives as a major bloc in Republican politics, didn’t appeal to voters with such a strong emphasis on his personal religious faith when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 – and finished second in Iowa.
What’s striking is that it’s not until the end of the Huckabee ad that the words “Authentic Conservative” pop up on the screen. As a result, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, at least in this ad, Huckabee has made his political views secondary to his religious beliefs. Perhaps this is what Christian conservatives in Iowa want to hear…
First of all, I think it’s worth remembering that just a few months back, a Huckabee supporter in Iowa went after Senator Brownback for being a Roman Catholic — and Governor Huckabee refused to apologize for it.
Secondly, I think the message from Governor Huckabee’s ad is pretty clear. He’s telling evangelicals in Iowa, “I’m one of you.” That’s why — as Barnes points out — the “conservative leader” stuff isn’t mentioned until the very end. Leave aside the fact that it’s not true — true or false, it’s just not the point of the ad.
And I think Barnes is on to something when he says this may be what our people want to hear. Maybe I’m just grumpy because I’m under the weather this week, but regrettably, I think it’s exactly what many well-meaning evangelicals want to hear.
Why do I say that? Well, look at history. The current President Bush got the nomination in 2000 and won re-election in 2004 largely because he consolidated (in 2000) and expanded (in 2004) conservative evangelical support. And he did that on the basis of a personal — not political appeal. In 2000, even though he was not the most conservative (or the most competent) candidate in the race, conservative elites were awed — and rightly so — by his testimony. And in 2004, after DUI revelations had decreased his share of the evangelical vote in 2000, his campaign:
built a “tightly disciplined grassroots organization” that included well over one million volunteers. These volunteers canvassed neighborhoods, organized rallies, and registered some 3.4 million new Republican voters between 2002 and 2004….One official in Ohio, Milkis and Rhodes report, emphasized that the Party’s mobilization efforts were fueled by “volunteers’ admiration for and loyalty to George W. Bush” as well as frequent visits by the president to “fire up” the rank and file.
That’s from an NRO article by W. Bradford Wilcox and Jon A. Shields, published yesterday.
Point being? In the last two election cycles, “I’m one of you” has worked on us.
Now, I love the president. And you won’t find too many people in Alexandria, Virginia who say that — driving around, I often see “Impeach Them Both” signs. But I don’t think it’s a sure thing that the “I’m one of you” method of selection netted us the best candidate in 2000. And if it did, it’s not because the method was good — it was in spite of the method.
To get a perspective on why, let’s look at the more distant past.
In 1996, our choice in the general election was between a Methodist who was divorced and a Southern Baptist who talked about God a lot. Similarly, in 1992 the choice was between someone who never talked about his faith unless pressed — and when pressed, dubbed himself a member of the “frozen chosen” — and a Southern Baptist who talked about God a lot. Which one says “I’m one of you” to an evangelical? Probably the Southern Baptist. That would be Bill Clinton, who defeated George H. W. Bush, member of the frozen chosen, and Bob Dole, the divorced Methodist.
Or look at 1980. Then, the choice was between another Southern Baptist who talked about God a great deal and was very active in his church — the first evangelical in presidential politics that anybody could remember. His opponent didn’t go to church and had been divorced. Which one was “one of us?” Probably that other Southern Baptist. His name was Jimmy Carter; the divorcee’s was Ronald Reagan.
Taking advantage of 20/20 hindsight, it’s easy to see that in past elections, picking a president based on whether he’s “one of us” as opposed to how he’d actually govern was a terrible idea. In 1980, we got it right — and as a result, we got Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice Scalia, tax cuts, and victory in the Cold War. Will we today?