December 19, 2007

The 2008 Republican presidential race has already produced two upsets: the rise of Mike Huckabee from no-hoper to a serious threat to Mitt Romney in Iowa and the spectacular fundraising success of Ron Paul, who raised over $4.2 million on Nov. 5 alone and be the top Republican fundraiser for the fourth quarters of 2007. The potential exists for a bigger surprise yet, for Ron Paul to snatch the nomination from Romney and Giuliani in the name of traditional conservatism—if a significant number of Christian conservatives see through Mike Huckabee’s flimflam.


They have already seen through former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the multimillionaire whose views on abortion and homosexuality have conveniently mutated as he has sought higher office. Romney’s defenders claim that the man who campaigned to the left of Ted Kennedy on social issues in 1994 and adhered to a similar platform in his 2002 gubernatorial race has since seen the light. If so, he couldn’t have timed his conversion better: any sooner, and he would have turned off Massachusetts voters. Any later, and he would have no prayer of getting the presidential nod. (Who needs Giuliani-lite when Giuliani himself is in the race?) National Review reporter David Freddoso has come up with a good question to put to Romney: “Have you ever changed a position on anything so that [it] doesn’t benefit your political ambitions?”


Romney had already spent $20 million seeking the nomination by mid-July, with a heavy emphasis then and since on the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. All that spending bought him only the most skin-deep support in the Hawkeye State, where all recent polls find former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee now beating him. Huckabee, who has earned himself the nickname “Tax-Hike Mike” for his terrible fiscal record in Arkansas, had raised only about $2.2 million for his entire campaign by mid-October and had a paltry $650,000 cash on hand at the beginning of that month, according to ABC News. Unlike Romney, Huckabee hasn’t bought his support, and he isn’t getting his momentum from small-government fiscal conservatives. Huckabee’s traction in Iowa, and increasingly across the nation, is thanks to the enthusiasm he receives from the Republican Party’s religious base. Analyzing a recent McClatchey-MSNBC poll that found Huckabee leading Romney in Iowa by twelve points, reporter David Lightman noted, “Huckabee’s strength rose most from self-described ‘born-again’ Christians, who are expected to deliver about 40 percent of the state’s Republican vote. They preferred Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, by 42-to-8 percent over Romney.”


Evangelicals and religious right voters of other denominations are lighter on the ground in New Hampshire, where Huckabee’s support is correspondingly thinner—he regularly polls in fourth there, behind Romney, Giuliani, and John McCain. In South Carolina, where Christian conservatives are somewhat stronger, polls again show Huckabee overtaking Romney at the head of the pack. Nationwide, Christian conservatives are a bedrock demographic of Republican primary voters, and the “God gap” among religious voters was crucial to George W. Bush’s victory in the 2004 general election. John Green, a Pew Center senior fellow in religion and American politics, provides some compelling data: Evangelical Protestants went for Bush over Kerry by 79 percent to 21 percent. Non-Latino Catholics chose Bush by 57 to 43 percent. (Bad news for Karl Rove, though: Latino Catholics preferred Kerry by a whopping 63 to 37 percent.) “Values voters,” as the Republican religious base came to be called in the last presidential cycle, might well propel Huckabee to the Republican nomination—if they turn out for the primaries, and if they start opening their wallets for the cash-starved former governor—and while they can’t elect Huckabee next November by themselves (Bush only beat Kerry in the 2004 popular vote by 51 to 48 percent, despite his huge margins among frequent churchgoers), they lend his campaign whatever general election chance it might have.


All of this alarms neoconservatives like Charles Krauthammer, who detects in Christian conservatives’ reluctance to back the chameleon-like Romney the dread specter of bias against Romney’s Mormon faith. He doesn’t deign to mention Romney’s socially left-wing gubernatorial record and past campaigns, instead asserting that the Romney trails Huckabee “because about 40 percent of the Republican caucus voters in 2000 were self-described ‘Christian conservatives’—twice the number of those in New Hampshire, for example—and, for many of them, Mormonism is a Christian heresy.” Before Mormons or anybody else rushes to embrace Krauthammer as a paragon of religious tolerance, however, one should consider whether the Washington Post columnist doesn’t think that denominational commitments of all kinds are a distraction from the one true faith: the Church of America. Says Krautie, “The God of the Founders, the God on the coinage, the God for whom Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving day is the ineffable, ecumenical, nonsectarian Providence of the American civil religion whose relation to this blessed land is without appeal to any particular testament or ritual.” (Krauthammer isn’t endorsing secularism here: he’s conscripting religious sentiment, stripped of theological content, into the service of Proposition Nationalism. But that’s a subject for another day.)


The real problem with Christian conservatives’ support for Huckabee isn’t the bogeyman of religion intolerance. Rather it’s that Huckabee is not a conservative at all. The former Arkansas governor has tried to rehabilitate his dismal record on taxes by embracing a crackpot talk-radio panacea called (in perfectly Orwellian language) the “Fair Tax.” Huckabee says he’ll abolish the income tax and IRS and institute instead the “fair tax,” which is notionally a national sales tax of 23 percent—but really, as Bruce Bartlett points out, 30 percent: “If a product costs $1 at retail, the FairTax adds 30%, for a total of $1.30. Since the 30-cent tax is 23% of $1.30, FairTax supporters say the rate is 23% rather than 30%.” Want to pay 30 percent more on everything you now buy? Then the “Fair Tax” is for you. The rate is so high because, like every fraudulent tax reform, it’s revenue neutral. For most Americans, it would be a tax hike, since sales taxes are regressive, affecting the middle class and poor more than the wealthy, while our current income tax is progressive, disproportionately hurting the rich. Progressivity is unjust, but why should a middle-income family of four in, say, Arkansas, pay more taxes so that George Soros and Howard Buffet can catch a break? Ask Tax-Hike Mike.


As for abolishing the IRS, it isn’t likely. If a Democratic Congress were even to entertain the idea of a regressive sales tax, it would probably demand that a progressive income tax be kept to share the burden, and this would be a strong political position: a lower sales tax for everyone, in exchange for keeping an income tax on a relatively few wealthy people. But of course, over time both taxes would rise—indeed, tax hikes would be easier than ever with two distinct constituencies (the rich and everybody else) competing to raise taxes on one another in order to offset their own tax cuts. Even if the IRS were downsized, the new sales tax would not be self-enforcing: there’s nothing special about the IRS; tax collectors of all kinds have been despised since antiquity—they were the most hated people among whom Christ traveled—and with good reason. Sales-tax enforcers would crack down on businesses, on individuals who might be buying from “black” (i.e. free, untaxed, unregulated) markets, and would put a great deal of scrutiny on American citizens entering or leaving the country—can’t have anyone buying lower-tax goods from Mexico or Canada or elsewhere, not if we want to be “fair.”


Why does Huckabee support revenue-neutral tax reform at all, rather than a simple tax cut? Because he’s a big spender, that’s why: Huckabee ditches conservative positions not just on government revenues, but government outlays as well. According to the Club for Growth and Americans for Tax Reform, “Governor Huckabee was responsible for a 37% higher sales tax in Arkansas, 16% higher motor fuel taxes, and 103% higher cigarette taxes,” all of which failed to offset Huckabee’s spending increases, since “Under Governor Huckabee’s watch, state spending increased a whopping 65.3% from 1996 to 2004, three times the rate of inflation. … and the state’s general obligation debt shot up by almost $1 billion.” Huckabee likes his government super-sized. He also likes it to be more intrusive into the lives of ordinary citizens: Huckabee has said that as president he would sign a federal ban on smoking in public places, and one can take it on faith that that would only be the beginning of Huckabee’s ambitions for federal management of Americans’ health and recreation activities.


One is hard pressed to find any area where Huckabee expresses a commitment prudent, limited government; which is to say, to conservative principle. He’s a NASA space cadet. In foreign policy, he’s not only an interventionist—he wants to remain in Iraq indefinitely, and he’s said he would launch an attack on Iran without so much as a congressional authorization—but he’s poorly informed and by most accounts far out of his depth discussing world affairs. He has opposed immigration enforcement and supported providing taxpayer benefits to illegal immigrants and has accused critics of his position of “race-baiting and demagoguery.” As for crime, there’s Huckabee’s very liberal use of his clemency and commutation powers as governor and his troubling relationship to the parole of rapist Wayne Dumond, who went on to murder a woman in Missouri after being released from an Arkansas prison. (I’m in favor of a little more liberalism in the penal system myself—that America has more people in prison than any other nation on earth, both in per capita and in absolute numbers, is a national disgrace. But Huckabee’s record of commuting murders’ sentences is startling even to me.)


Against all that, Huckabee is anti-abortion, opposes gay marriage, and considers homosexuality sinful. The same can’t be said with much confidence about Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney, and so far voters have found Huckabee’s folksy manner and guitar-strumming stage persona more enticing than Fred Thompson’s air of bewildered indifference (“Can I have a round of applause?”). He’s a Baptist minister as well, of course, which doesn’t hurt him with Protestant voters. But none of this makes Huckabee a conservative: there are anti-abortion, religiously conservative liberals. In Goldwater’s day, let alone Robert A. Taft’s, when social issues were less of a distinguishing feature of Republicans and Democrats, Huckabee would have belonged on the Democratic side of the aisle. Naïve, big-government, tax-and-spend liberals like Mike Huckabee have not become any more conservative simply because the Democratic Party has become the party of abortion on demand. As Phyllis Schlafly has warned, Huckabee “destroyed the conservative movement in Arkansas, and left the Republican Party a shambles. … Yet some of the same evangelicals who sold us on George W. Bush as a ‘compassionate conservative’ are now trying to sell us on Mike Huckabee.”


Fortunately, socially conservative religious voters do not have to settle for Mike Huckabee; there is an alternative to him, Romney, and Giuliani. That alternative is the other second tier candidate who has vaulted into the top echelon, Dr. Ron Paul. The Texas congressman has the fundraising that Huckabee doesn’t; in terms of the money he’s pulling in—Paul is on target to raise $12 to $15 million for the final quarter of 2007—he’s on par with Giuliani and Romney. Where Huckabee is poor on the panoply of traditional conservative issues, Paul is rock solid. Paul, in ten terms in Congress, has never once voted to raise taxes. (And he doesn’t believe in any of that “revenue neutral” hokum.) Paul has always been for border enforcement and denying illegal immigrants taxpayer benefits. And Paul was one of the very few Congressional Republicans to see the folly of the Iraq War, which he voted against, right from the beginning. Paul is steeped in the Old Right, indeed old American tradition of avoiding entanglements and unnecessary wars. Huckabee is known as Tax-Hike Mike. Ron Paul, on the other hand, is “Dr. No” for his refusal to vote for any legislation that cannot be squared with a strict reading of the Constitution.


His social conservative credentials are 24 karat as well: as an ob-gyn, he has personal experience with life in the womb that undergirds his staunch opposition to abortion. His support for a federal ban on partial-birth abortion is, to the best of my knowledge, the only instance of Paul overriding his strict commitment to states’ rights for the sake of another cause. Paul is for overturning Roe v. Wade and sending abortion law back to the states, where it constitutionally belongs. His approach to opposing gay marriage is also federalist—rather than endorsing a constitutional amendment to federalize marriage, Paul would like Congress to restrict the federal courts’ power over defining marriage, which would allow the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act to be the unchallenged law of the land. States could still redefine marriage if they chose—but courts could not impose one state’s laws on every other. It’s not the solution that every Christian conservative wants, but it is the one that does least violence to the Constitution.


Paul’s commitment to law—be it divine law, natural law, or civil constitutional law—ought to be one of his most attractive qualities for Christian conservative voters. Paul understands the idea of law as a bond and limit on human desire and activity: alone of the 2008 Republican presidential contenders Paul understands that just laws have their source in something other than human whim. Consider the difference between Ron Paul’s response and Mitt Romney’s answer when each was asked by Iowa talk radio host Jan Mickelson whether Roe is the law of the land. “It is now,” said Romney, which prompted Mickelson to tell him, “… the Supreme Court doesn’t make law. They can’t make law. There’s only three sources of law and the court’s not one of them.” Ron Paul’s answer: “Well, they call it the law of the land but I want to clarify that by getting rid of it. This is one example of the courts overstepping their bounds tremendously…” Paul then goes on to explain that here, too, a constitutional amendment is not necessary: Congress already has the power to restrict the federal courts’ jurisdiction. So why, asks Mickelson, didn’t the putatively antiabortion Republicans do that when they held the majority in Congress?


Paul: “Well I think it’s insincerity in what they say when they campaign, and they don’t follow through, and they sort of pander to get votes and then they don’t want to rock the vote.”


Mickelson: “So they come out here to the cheap seats and serve up pro-life rhetoric and go back to Washington and go back to doing their thing.”


Paul: “Get the pro-life vote and then go and not offend the people who believe in abortion, and try to ride the rail in the middle of the road, and too often they get away with it. I think I have the reputation for doing what I say, and voting that way, and my voting record shows that.”


Paul has picked up support from several influential Christian conservative writers, including Chuck Baldwin and Laurence Vance. He’s making inroads at the grassroots level as well. But so far, he hasn’t attracted the kind of mass “values voter” following that has been propelling Huckabee’s effort. If support for Huckabee is intended as a political calculation on the part of grassroots Christian conservative, it’s a mistaken one: the underfunded Huckabee might pull off an upset against Romney in Iowa, but he has little hope of beating “Rudy McRomney” for the Republican nomination—or beating Hillary or Barack next November. A tax-and-spend liberal like Huckabee has as little chance of uniting the Right as the untrustworthy Romney and socially liberal Giuliani. Paul, on the other hand, already has the support of libertarians and antiwar moderates. If the Christian grassroots voted according to conservative principle and added their weight to Paul, he would have a very good chance indeed of beating the whole New York / Massachusetts / Chicago slate of candidates in both parties.


But the 2008 contest poses serious tests for Christian conservatives: a test of whether their commitment to conservatism extends beyond social issues, and a test of whether they can resist the folksy charms of a good ol’ boy from Arkansas—many Evangelicals, after all, fell for the last Arkansas governor to run for president in 1992, which was one of the secrets of Bill Clinton’s first victory. If the grassroots don’t resist the siren call of Tax-Hike Mike, they might yet remain anti-abortion, but in every other respect they’ll have ceased to be a religious right and will have become a new, and dangerous, religious left.


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!