His innocence (or ignorance) on foreign policy, penchant for borrowing liberal economic attack lines, and even his rejection of Darwin’s theory of evolution deserve to be understood by voters before they make him their standard bearer.
Rod points out that much the same could have been said, and was said, about Bush in 1999-2000, but this didn’t stop the WSJ from backing him. The perceived difference on economics is supposed to be what drives the hostility to Huckabee, and originally I was persuaded that Huckabee was sincere in espousing a kind of economic populism and protectionism until I paid more attention to what he actually believed. It still seems correct to assume that his identity as a primarily socially conservative candidate, and one who does not hide his religion in the closet, has deeply troubled secular and “libertarian” Republicans, and that the reaction against him is a reaction of so-called “money-cons” (the sort that Rod described as “mainstream conservatives” in Crunchy Cons) against conservatives who think that social issues remain central and who are tired of being taken for granted.
Having been an early adopter of this economic policy explanation for the anti-Huckabee campaign, I now think this emphasis on Huckabee’s economics is to exaggerate the differences between Candidate Bush and Huckabee considerably. President Bush has indeed been tied closely to corporate Republicans and has been one all along, but if we can think back to the original Bush campaign in 2000 we will remember a candidate who stressed many of the same themes and tried to identify Republicans with a “reform” agenda in policy areas not traditionally assoociated with the GOP. If Bush launched his campaign with an attack on the Congressional GOP for “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor” (even then, Gerson’s rhetoric was annoying), Huckabee has engaged in much the same “I feel your pain” hand-waving that Bush did. If Huckabee is not so daft as to say things like, “Family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande,” he has plenty of statements on the record that make him sound every bit as sentimental and sappy on immigration, while also having said plenty of things that insult conservative restrictionists in the worst ways. The charge that Huckabee is “borrowing liberal economic attack lines” is mostly baseless, unless it is a “liberal economic attack line” to acknowledge that there is economic anxiety and uncertainty abroad in the land, which the new jobless numbers and purchasing reports are beginning to drive home. If he is borrowing them, perhaps it is because they have been succeeding electorally. In any case, we don’t know whether a “compassionate conservative” would have sounded more like a populist in 2000, because economic conditions were relatively better and there was much less anxiety. Huckabee is showing us what “compassionate conservatism” looks like in an election year where economic conditions are relatively worse.
The key differences between Bush and Huckabee and perhaps a better explanation for why so many Bush voters are balking at supporting Huckabee are that Huckabee is a real Southerner, in that he was born and raised there, while Bush was a transplanted Texan, and Huckabee came from a lower-middle class family and Bush came from wealthy American political aristocracy. To the extent that Huckabee represents anything threatening or different, it is in his biography and geography, if you will. Republicans have never given the reins to a real, born-and-bred Southerner. If Northeasterners are already freaking out about the risk of the GOP becoming a regional, Southern party, you can just imagine the terrible thoughts that run through their head when they consider the consequences of a Huckabee nomination. Bush was a transplant to west Texas, but had strong family and political ties back East, while Huckabee could represent a real shift of the political center of gravity of the GOP towards the region where a huge number of the party’s voters live. In this sense, it may not be so much what Huckabee is saying or not saying as where he comes from that worries the party elites who are from quite different places.
However, I think Rod has missed the larger point, as we all have, myself included, in thinking about anti-Huckabee sentiment. In WSJ ideology, as with so many other organs of putatively conservative opinion, national security and foreign policy are now supposed to be absolutely paramount, and the establishment’s preferred candidates on this score are McCain and Giuliani–always have been and always will be so long as they are in the race. Neoconservative publications were major McCain boosters eight years ago, in no small part because they were concerned that Bush’s promise of a “humble” foreign policy and his consorting with all manner of realists and people who initially seemed reasonable. The attacks on Huckabee’s foreign policy statements have usually derived from this same fear of creeping realism and an abandonment of the more militant and aggressive policies of the last seven years–he has therefore dutifully starting chattering about Islamofascism whenever he can to show that he is not some weak, diplomacy-loving friend of the State Department. Only grudgingly did neoconservatives initially accept Bush’s victory over McCain, and some of them were among his most ferocious critics in the early months of his first term, especially during the April incident with the Chinese. It seems to me that there are two kinds of responses to Huckabee emerging among leading Republicans: McCain supporters who could live with Huckabee if they had to (e.g., Brooks and possibly Kristol) and McCain and Giuliani supporters who have continued to see Huckabee as the blunt instrument with which their preferred candidate demolishes Mitt Romney and clears the path to the nomination. The establishment types who have already declared for Romney now find themselves fighting against a two or three-front assault, as everyone believes his candidate has the most to gain from Romney’s complete defeat. Honestly, I think the Giuliani and McCain supporters who think they will be able to banish Huckabee once he has become strong enough to knock Romney out are delusional, and they will find themselves confronted with a candidate they cannot easily stop and will also find a lot of bitter Romney supporters who will be in no mood to work very hard for candidates who helped beat their man.