Dale Bumpers, who always had a dependable nose for the prevailing winds even if he did not obey it, said the other day that if Mike Huckabee was counting on the Religious Right to deliver the Republican presidential nomination his campaign was dead in the water.
That is an apt description of the Huckabee campaign today. He has embraced the orthodoxy created by Karl Rove that abortion, gays and taxes are the only issues Republicans care deeply about, and his campaign for president is dead in the water.
But nearly every other Republican candidate has adopted the same strategy, a few more wholly than others. Though he tried to blur the issues, Rudy Giuliani can hardly claim abortion and gays as his causes. John McCain tried early on to co-opt the Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson base but he seems lately to be backing off. Ron Paul, the irritable Texas libertarian, alone carries the banner of old-line Republicanism. But all the others are on board with the Rove strategy.
Can Karl Rove possibly have been wrong, that the route to the nomination has to be through the conservative evangelicals and the rich who hate to pay taxes? It may be George W. Bush’s most invidious legacy to his party by forcing its candidates toward the most extreme positions on the narrowest issues.
There is no evidence that Rove’s doctrine, if it were ever the successful formula, remains so today. The presidential polls certainly do not reflect it. The fire-breathers on the social issues are all in the low single digits, and the men with a checkered past with the Religious Right are all at the top.
David Brooks, the elegant New York Times columnist whose job ordinarily is to give an intellectual patina to Bush and Republican disasters, wrote a thoughtful piece last month suggesting that the party stalwarts were leading the party to greater electoral disaster in 2008 and beyond by their absorption with enforcing extremity on those issues. Young people are leaving the GOP in droves and the Democrats have opened up a huge lead in party identification of voters. Republican candidates, Brooks said, are all afraid to say they are different or offer anything interesting to voters, on the social issues, on even a war ragingly unpopular and certainly not on taxation.
It could be that even Republicans are worried about unworkable government, the concentration of wealth and power and the erosion of America’s standing in the world.
If Brooks is right, and I think he is, the best thing that could have happened to the party was that not many Americans tuned in to the South Carolina presidential debate. The candidates thought that the crowd of true believers who formed the live audience might actually represent America. The crowd cheered any affirmation of torture.
Our beloved former governor was the second worst panderer of the panel behind Massachusetts’ Mitt Romney, who deftly papered over his history of flouting orthodoxy on abortion, gays and government activism by saying that he had simply undergone conversions. The road to Damascus runs by his house.
The Fox interviewer had done a little homework and challenged Huckabee on his claim to be a tax-cutter. He had actually raised taxes substantially and how did he explain his claim to be a true conservative? Huckabee would get some favorable notice for rare honesty that evening for explaining how he had gone along with some higher taxes to improve the lot of his people.
But that is not how Huckabee wanted his remarks to be remembered. He maintained that he had delivered the first tax cut in Arkansas history, that he had slashed taxes 94 times, that the tax increases were ratified by 80 percent of Arkansas voters or else forced by the courts.
None of it was true. Taxes had been cut many times before he became governor; he did not cut taxes 94 times but raised them to produce $3 billion in new general revenues annually; the single substantial tax cut of his tenure was a Democratic tax bill, not his; people did not vote on the gasoline tax increase that he cited but for a bond issue supported by the taxes adopted by the legislature and signed by him; and the courts did not order higher taxes for education.
He did not mention that sales taxes were raised by 37 percent with his support, cigarette taxes by 103 percent and motor fuel taxes by 16 percent, that he supported and signed a temporary hike in personal income taxes and a huge bed tax for nursing home residents. If he rises from the second tier of candidates as he hopes, he will be called to account for the untruths. No one bothers now.
Arkansas voters do remember those things, and while they endure taxes no better than people in New York or South Carolina they are philosophical about them and would not fault Huckabee for striving to improve the stake of Arkansas children.
But Huckabee, like Romney, dares not boast of the single legitimate claim that he might make for leadership — that he abandoned orthodoxy to make government work for his people. The party will pay for their timidity.