Fineman: The Huckabee Problem

Mike Huckabee advertises himself as a "Christian Leader." But he is loath to talk about his preacher days. On the campaign trail, it is the Lost Decade of his life. No one can find, or get access to, texts or video of his sermons. He is an ordained Southern Baptist minister; he led two congregations. Still, he'd rather talk about the guitar his folks bought him at JCPenney, or about the bravery of the Founding Fathers, or about his long (and in many ways impressive) track record as governor of Arkansas. I asked him what he had learned at the pulpit that he could apply to the presidency. Back came a wary, secular reply. "I saw the incredible range of human experience," he said. "When you're a pastor, you see heights and depths in people that you do not see in any other line of work." He made it sound like human car repair. Not a word about "taking this nation back for Christ." That was just something he had said years ago to jazz up his fellow Baptists at a convention. "You have to know the context," he told me.

I do. It was 1998. He was the top elected official in his state. He had his eye on national politics, if for no other reason than that his fellow Arkansan (and Hope native) was hunkered down in the Oval Office dealing with the way-too-Biblical Lewinsky affair. Huckabee, who was already on Don Imus's radar screen, knew precisely what he was doing: building his base by mixing a familiar—and explosive—Bible-belt cocktail of politics and religion. Now it may blow up the Republican Party.

Trying to have it both ways is what politicians do for a living. But in Washington and the savvier precincts of elsewhere (Nashville, for example), Republicans and their secular conservatives allies are distraught at the thought of Huckabee as the GOP's 2008 presidential nominee. They couch their fears in terms of secular issues: his spending record as governor, his advocacy of a national sales tax, his confusion about the location of Pakistan. Privately, however, what worries the insiders is that Blue and Purple America will run shrieking from a fellow—no matter how media-savvy and just-plain-folks he seems to be—who does not believe in the science of evolution but who does believe that the Bible is pretty close to literally true.

And to them I say, let us turn to Paul's Letter to the Galatians, chapter six, verse seven, in which he writes: "For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." For the fact is, Huckabee's candidacy is nothing more or less than the logical result of the GOP's 30-year-long crusade to turn evangelical Christians into the shock troops of the party. After Jimmy Carter first lured some of them into the trenches in 1976—and won much of the South in the process—Republicans, under a Tennessean named Bill Brock, made this the core of their strategy, and figures such as the late Lee Atwater, Karl Rove and George W. Bush pursued it. The full fruit of their labors materialized in 2004. Twenty-seven million evangelicals voted by a four-to-one margin to re-elect the president; they formed more than a third of his total vote.

If they are that crucial to the GOP coalition, it only makes sense for them to want to eliminate the middlemen. Why rely on laypeople such as Bush when you can have the real thing? And that would seem to be Huckabee, if he is still willing to admit it.