Politics & Policy

One Night in Iowa

What does Huckabee mean for conservatism?

In the wake of Thursday night’s Iowa Caucus victory for Mike Huckabee, National Review Online asked a group on Right-minded commentators: What does Huckabee’s victory mean for conservatism?

Richard Brookhiser

Preacher cleans rich guy’s clock in Iowa — what a story! No wonder it filled the headlines — in 1988, when Pat Robertson finished ahead of Vice President George H. W. Bush (Bob Dole came in first that year).

Evangelicals began engaging in Republican politics in the late Seventies. Dinesh D’Souza’s biography of the late Jerry Falwell gave an early and amusing account of the process. In a meeting with Falwell, Paul Weyrich came up with the name Moral Majority, but thought it was too peppery. Falwell jumped on it. In crowded fields, an evangelical champion, if there is one, can shoot to the front. 1988 was a cattle call, just like this year: Bush, Dole, Kemp, DuPont, and even Al Haig, besides Robertson.

In one important respect, Huckabee’s supporters have made a wiser choice than their soul-mates 20 years ago. Their man has been a governor and a lieutenant governor. Unlike Robertson (and the host of tyro candidates who have run recently) he would know the way to the bathroom.

Expect much hand-wringing about religious politics, but remember that this is a religious country, whose believers have often picked sides in our electoral battles. For decades Catholics made their home in the Democratic party; Ray Donovan, Reagan’s Secretary of Labor, used to say that the two pictures on the wall of his home growing up were of FDR and Pius XII. Black Protestants are Democrats now, and two of them have sought the Democratic nomination (Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton).

Iowa is early days, and Huckabee will now get a full mauling; Ed Rollins will know just what to expect. But jockeying is the sign of lively coalitions, and the delight of connoisseurs.

I just wish he wasn’t such an eye gouger.

– Richard Brookhiser is a National Review senior editor.

Daniel Casse

I don’t know what Huckabee means for conservatism. But it promises a helluva party for the angry Left. Since Thanksgiving, the New York Times has been positively giddy about the possibility that the GOP was firmly in the hands of a genuine Bible-thumper. “They’re arguing about Jesus again,” was the plain meaning of the half dozen front-page “news analyses” the paper feverishly put together on the Huckabee surge. People for the American Way appears to have an entire team posting news about Huck’s progress, including a story crowing “We Like Mike.” And why not? They are scripting the fundraising video, likely set to the music from Jaws, as we sit here. Ditto the American Civil Liberties Union, where they are probably studying his “Silent Night” ad in Iowa as if it were the Zapruder film. Can you imagine the gleeful warnings about Huckabee’s American that you will be hearing on the Air America Guatemala cruise in February? Liberal interest groups haven’t had such an enviable fundraising opportunity since George W. Bush raised the arsenic level in kids’ drinking water. The Democratic direct-mail barons are doing handsprings. “I Like Mike,” they are shouting. School prayer. Back-alley abortions. Supreme Court nominees. Christian Nation. For them, happy days are here again.

– Daniel Casse is a senior director of the White House Writers Group.

John Hood

Both major political parties in the U.S. are coalitions. Right now, the Democratic coalition is energized and coherent. The Republican coalition is dispirited and divided. The outcomes in Iowa illustrate these conditions — though history and common sense tell us that they did not necessary predict the eventual party nominees.

Look at Mike Huckabee’s solid win over Mitt Romney. Of the five major GOP candidates, two are running as the candidates of optimism and reassurance: Romney and Thompson. They seek to hold together and mobilize the traditional triad of fiscal, social, and defense conservatives. For Huckabee, McCain, and Giuliani, the strategy is entirely different. Each in his own way rejects key positions and elements of the triad in an attempt to pull new voters into what they see as an inadequate GOP base.

While the pessimists’ goals are similar, only one can prevail. In reality, Huckabee and McCain are effectively operating as agents of Giuliani. Romney’s modest performance in Iowa may set up McCain to sting him in New Hampshire, seriously weakening if not destroying Romney’s early-state strategy. Since I believe neither Huckabee nor McCain has the resources, issues, and temperament to win the nomination, the beneficiary is obvious.

Fortunately for Mitt Romney — and defenders of the current conservative coalition — Obama’s Iowa win will likely set off a huge and exciting battle in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, thus potentially pulling independents away from the GOP primary and undercutting McCain a bit. The game’s not yet over. But Giuliani is now back in it, thanks to Huck.

– John Hood is a president of the John Locke Foundation.

David Limbaugh

Most expected Huckabee to win Iowa, but his actual victory is somewhat sobering. I believe a Huckabee nomination would be a major step backward for conservatism, given his liberalism, apart from social issues. It’s true that George Bush isn’t completely conservative either (e.g. spending and immigration), but he has strong conservative credentials on the “big three”: taxes, national security and social issues (judges). Huckabee is weak on immigration and only a sure thing on one of the big three.

The question, then, is whether Huckabee’s Iowa victory substantially increases his chances of capturing the nomination, without which it will have no impact on conservatism.

It seems the Iowa caucus system and demographics were made to order for Huckabee’s identity politics. Very large percentages of the Republican voters are self-described evangelicals. New Hampshire presents a different picture, but Huckabee’s impressive win might increase his stature enough to make him more competitive there and elsewhere. He has the advantages of likeability, charisma, and eloquence and could capitalize on the respective weaknesses or perceived weaknesses of the other candidates.

Romney, once thought by pundits to be a strong favorite, looks much more vulnerable having been beaten by a grossly under-funded and recently second-tier candidate. If tonight starts him on a downhill path, the question is whether one of the other candidates — Go Fred! — will fill the void.

I still think Huckabee is very much a long shot to win the nomination. While large percentages of Republican voters are Christians, they are also conservatives and eventually, Huckabee’s dubious conservative bona fides and record should sink his bid. But I admit that could be wishful thinking on my part.

– David Limbaugh is a writer, author and attorney. His book Bankrupt: The Intellectual and Moral Bankruptcy of Today’s Democratic Party was recently released in paperback.

John J. Pitney Jr.

Huckabee’s victory highlights a populist strain in the GOP. Populism has a long history and variety of features, but we can roughly define it as the union of traditional moral values and “little guy” economics. It’s God vs. Gomorrah in the bedroom, David v. Goliath in the boardroom.

Thursday night was hardly the first time that populism had left its mark on a GOP nomination contest. In 1988, Pat Robertson placed second in the Iowa caucuses, ahead of George H. W. Bush. Four years later, Pat Buchanan won a surprising 40 percent in the New Hampshire primary. In 1996, Buchanan came close to Bob Dole in Iowa and actually beat him in New Hampshire.

Robertson and Buchanan faded quickly, in part because of their demeanors. Robertson seemed weird, while Buchanan looked mean. Huckabee could last longer because he comes across as sane and nice.

More than mere image, Robertson and Buchanan suffered from limited appeal to orthodox conservatives. According to the Club for Growth, Huckabee takes “profoundly anti-growth positions on taxes, spending, and government regulation.” For Huckabee to succeed where Robertson and Buchanan failed, one of two things must happen. Either he must mislead GOP voters into thinking that he is an economic conservative, or those voters must stop caring. Either way, a Huckabee victory would be very bad news for conservatism as we know it.

– John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.

Pat Toomey

Huckabee’s win in Iowa is a temporary setback for conservatism. Fortunately, the celebratory mood at Huckabee headquarters will likely end soon. Huckabee is a social conservative, but otherwise liberal populist who managed to capture a plurality of the vote in a large and splintered field in one of the most socially conservative electorates in the union. But there is little chance of this plurality growing into the majority Huckabee needs to take the nomination. In fact, it often seems like Huckabee goes out of his way to anger the other elements of the conservative movement instead of courting them, dismissing his critics who believe in economic freedom and a strong national defense as members of the Washington establishment, Wall Street millionaires, and secular elitists. Huckabee is going to need some of those critics if he is ever to win 50 percent of the vote in any primary. Iowa has a history of voting for candidates who do not go on to win their parties’ nominations, and there is a very good chance that will be the case here. Huckabee is a fringe Republican, and does not represent the conservative movement on economic policy, domestic programs, law and order, and foreign policy. It is hard to imagine a candidate so out of step with most in the conservative movement assuming the stage in Minnesota in eight months as its leader.

– Pat Toomey is president of the Club for Growth.

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