Thursday, December 13, 2007

The real Mike Huckabee

By Michael J.W. Stickings

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It's said that the NFL is a league of copycats, with teams copying each others' perceived strategies for success, but the NFL doesn't have a thing on the national political press in the U.S., that loose-knit community of me-too buffoons where imitation long ago replaced original thought.

This is true of both issues and people, and it is often driven by the right-wing smear machine. For example, there is no imminent social security crisis, but the right's privatization agenda requires the existence of a fake crisis, and so the machine pumps out its lies and misrepresentations, which are then dutifully reported by the press -- and by some of the biggest names in the press, like Tim Russert.

Another significant problem is that press tends to make snap assessments of issues and people, and then to stick to those assessments for far too long, only reforming them when compelled to do so by the massive weight of the evidence built up against those initial assessments.

Consider the current GOP presidential field: For far too long, Rudy Giuliani was the hero of 9/11. Only recently has the press begun to consider him for what he is: a corrupt, egotistical, authoritarian asshole. For far too long, John McCain was the straight-talking maverick. The press still likes him, more or less, but he's now seen as the warmonger he really is. For far too long, Fred Thompson was the second coming of Ronald Reagan. Now he's presented, more implicitly than explicitly, as a lazy, pointless candidate.

What prompted these narrative shifts? With Giuliani, it was the accumulation of reports of his massive assholery. With McCain, it was his delusional pro-war happy talk, along with a campaign in disarray. With Thompson, it was, well, Fred Thompson, the man himself -- once he entered the race, the disconnect between the candidate and the characters he plays on TV and in the movies was simply too obvious to ignore, even by the press. One exception here is Mitt Romney. He has been labelled a flip-flopper and a slick, micro-managing candidate, but for the most part he has managed to avoid seriously damaging press coverage. I still think he has a good shot at the nomination -- I would even call him the favourite -- but his weakness, in the eyes of GOP primary voters, are well-known and very much a part of the media narrative: his Mormonism, his liberal past, his unprincipled stands on key issues. Maybe there isn't much more there. If that's the case, he may succeed just because the negatives have already been factored in.

This leaves Mike Huckabee. What to make of the upstart ex-governor of Arkansas, the fundamentalist preacher on the rise throughout the country, Romney's main challenger on the social conservative right? His rise up through the ranks is explained in large part, I think, by the fact that no one knows much about him and by the fact that he seems to be a sort of cuddly conservative, a decent, non-threatening guy who comes across well both to voters and to the press. His appeal to the Christianists is clear -- for more, see here -- but there is a good deal more to the Huckabee phenomenon than that.

Consider Frank Rich's latest column in the Times, where Huckabee is described, amazingly, as the Republicans' Obama. Rich rejects the "prevailing Huckabee narrative" that "maintains that he's benefiting strictly from the loyalty of the religious right." In its place, he posits this:

Like Senator Obama, Mr. Huckabee is the youngest in his party's field. (At 52, he's also younger than every Democratic contender except Mr. Obama, who is 46.) Both men have a history of speaking across party and racial lines. Both men possess that rarest of commodities in American public life: wit. Most important, both men aspire (not always successfully) to avoid the hyper-partisanship of the Clinton-Bush era.

Though their views on issues are often antithetical, Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Obama may be united in catching the wave of an emerging zeitgeist that is larger than either party’s ideology.

Unlike his chief GOP rivals, Huckabee is decent and humane, Rich argues. Just take his positions on race and immigration: "The real reason for Mr. Huckabee's ascendance may be that his message is simply more uplifting — and, in the ethical rather than theological sense, more Christian — than that of rivals whose main calling cards of fear, torture and nativism have become more strident with every debate."

There's some truth there, but Rich's assessment of Huckabee is just as selective as the one he is rejecting. Yes, Huckabee may not be a xenophobic race-baiter, and elements of his message may be "uplifting" in an Obama-like way -- Rich also misrepresents Obama; his attacks on Hillary have hardly been uplifting, nor has his use of GOP-favoured talking points about his own party -- but vague positions on two issues, race and immigration, however admirable, do not even come close to capturing the essence of the man or the candidate.

For more on this, see "Huck's Sins," an issue-by-issue examination of the real Huckabee by Eve Fairbanks at TNR. For all the nice things he has to say about race and immigration, and as uplifting as he may appear to be, Huckabee is also the man who was bought off by the tobacco industry to slam Hillary's health care proposals, who committed various ethics violations while governor of Arkansas, who proposed putting AIDS patients in quarantine, who supports the Scientologist "fair tax," and who is basically the know-nothing candidate on foreign policy -- and so much more, including the appalling Wayne Dumond fiasco.

The real Huckabee is nothing like Frank Rich's Huckabee, the Huckabee of the prevailing media narrative. But that may change as more and more comes out about the past and present of a man who is a lot different than his image in the press.

A new, more honest narrative may soon emerge, giving the copycats something new to copy.

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