Mike Huckabee has serious weaknesses. As governor of Arkansas, he raised taxes, backed scholarships for illegal aliens, and secured parole for a vicious criminal who went on to kill. As a wartime presidential candidate, he has a mushy foreign-policy agenda that makes Jimmy Carter look like … Chuck Norris. Expect to learn even more. In days to come, the other GOP candidates will stuff reporters’ Christmas stockings full of opposition research.
The mainstream media, however, are misjudging where his soft spots are. A New York Times analysis says that his Christmas-tree TV spot could backfire outside of Iowa. “[T]he religiosity of the message may turn off more-secular voters elsewhere, and remind them that Mr. Huckabee has been dismissive of homosexuality and indicated that he does not believe in evolution.”
Let’s consider these claims, starting with the ad itself. The Times piece notes “what looks like a giant white cross” in the background. Even though the “cross” is just shelving, liberal commentators have breathlessly accused him of working a subliminal message into his ad. They sound a little like the crazies who used to inspect children’s books for Communist propaganda. Nowadays, every right angle is a potential breach of the Establishment Clause.
The ad says that the holiday celebrates the birth of Christ. Contrary to what some reporters are suggesting, Huckabee is not breaking any taboo here. President Clinton said in a 1993 radio address: “Today Christians celebrate God’s love for humanity made real in the birth of Christ in a manger almost 2,000 years ago. The humble circumstances of His birth, the example of His life, the power of His teachings inspire us to love and to care for our fellow men and women.”
Two years later, President Clinton’s Christmas message said: “We put angels and stars and twinkling lights on the Christmas tree to remind us of the glory and mystery of Christ’s birth. We sing the old and beloved Christmas carols to express the joy filling our hearts, and we share special gifts with those we love, just as God shared His Son with us.”
And yes, the original text included the upper-case H. These guys from Hope must really be into subliminal messages.
As for Huckabee’s stand on homosexuality, the Times is alluding to a recent news story about a comment that he made in 1992. During a U.S. Senate campaign, he wrote in a questionnaire that homosexuality is “sinful.” Such beliefs are hardly exotic. In 2003, the Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of Americans thought that it is a sin to engage in homosexual behavior. Among those reporting high religious commitment, that figure was 76 percent.
Survey data also indicate that his thoughts on creation are within the American mainstream. In a 2007 Gallup poll, about half said that believed in evolution and half did not. More relevant to the primary season, 68 percent of Republicans just said “no” to Darwin.
His position might cost him some votes in a general election. Another poll found that 8 percent would much more likely to vote for a candidate who did not believe in evolution, while 15 percent would be much less likely. But the 15 percent may have been thinking of Fredric March in Inherit the Wind, proclaiming that God made the earth on October 23, 4004, B.C. Huckabee is more sophisticated. In a debate, he said: “I believe there is a God who was active in the creation process. Now, how did he do it, and when did he do it, and how long did he take? I don’t honestly know, and I don’t think knowing that would make me a better or a worse president.” That answer would probably satisfy the 38 percent of Americans who believe in evolution but think that God guided it.
Huckabee’s media savvy has made him a formidable candidate. It also raises questions about his campaign ethics. The New York Times Magazine recently reported: “‘Don’t Mormons,’ he asked in an innocent voice, ‘believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?’” In Clintonesque fashion, he apologized to Romney after the quotation had circulated and done its damage.
Huckabee may well implode, but not because of his Christmas tree, his thoughts on gays, or his belief in creation. Innocence won’t have anything to do with it, either.
— John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.