Monday, November 19, 2007

The Huck and the Chuck

I often ignore the 30-second candidate TV ads, probably because they're so predictable -- the tinkling piano, the stars and stripes, the family tableaus, the vaporous bromides about fighting for a better tomorrow. But GOP candidate Mike Huckabee, the rock n' rolling religious conservative, did catch my attention yesterday, with the unveiling of his first campaign commercial, an exclusive on Fox News.

But first, some background: Huckabee, who is gaining strength in Iowa, breathing down Mitt Romney's neck, and therefore threatening to scramble the GOP race, nevertheless has a couple handicaps. Even though he is attracting some Christian conservatives who like his purist positions on gay marriage and abortion, and gaining support from working-class Republicans who like his populist attacks on corporations and Wall Street, he still faces resistance from the party base. A lot of base voters want a post-9/11 tough guy who will also crack down on illegal immigrants - yet this ex-Arkansas governor has no foreign policy/national security experience, unless you count overseeing the National Guard; and as governor he championed a plan to offer in-state tuition to illegal immigrants and their children.

So here's his solution to appearing soft. From the TV ad...

Huckabee: "My plan to secure the border. Two words: Chuck. Norris."

(Cut to Chuck Norris, sitting beside him.) Norris: "Mike Huckabee is a lifelong hunter who'll protect our Second Amendment rights."

(Cut back to Huckabee.) Huckabee: "There's no chin behind Chuck Norris' beard, only another fist."

Norris: "Mike Huckabee wants to put the IRS out of business."

Huckabee: "When Chuck Norris does a push-up, he isn't lifting himself up, he's pushing the earth down."

Norris: "Mike's a principled, authentic conservative."

Huckabee: "Chuck Norris doesn't endorse. He tells America how it's going to be. I'm Mike Huckabee and I approved this message. So did Chuck."

Is it really feasible that the conservative base will begin to view Huckabee as a tough guy, just because he signed up an '80s celluloid pugilist? Will Norris' success in scripted bar fights matter more to the base than the fact that, while Huckabee was Arkansas governor, the per capita state and local tax burden increased by roughly 47 percent? Or the fact that he doubled state spending?

Indeed, does the presence of Chuck Norris trump the Huck's continued support for using taxpayer money to educate the kids of illegal immigrants? As recently as last Friday, on Fox News, he was getting grief from Sean Hannity about that. Hannity asked him, "If people that have entered this country illegally, if we give them in-state tuition breaks, isn't that some type of reward for law-breaking? In other words, we know the impact that immigration has had on our educational system, our criminal justice system, and our health care system. So if we offer in-state tuition breaks for families that broke the law and didn't respect our laws, isn't that some type of reward?"

And Huckabee replied, "I'm sure it will be an argument that will be made. But my point is, if a kid is (brought) here when he is five or six years old by his parents and he had no choice whether he was here or not, do you continue to push him down?" That kind of reply might strike many conservatives as evidence of a bleeding heart.

So the question is, does Chuck Norris level the playing field for Huckabee? (Conservative commentator Matthew Continetti writes today, "To me, this ad represents both the good and the bad about Huckabee: It's funny and fresh, but in terms of substance it's lighter than air.") Do most voters really care about TV ad endorsements from B-list macho movie guys, even if they're still idolized on the Internet?

I suppose we'll know that the Huck has hit paydirt when one of his rivals signs up Steven Seagal.


There's a bit of a flap this morning about Rudy Giuliani's penchant for using a corporate jet owned by a casino gambling magnate. Some GOP activists think that it's a tad hypocritical for Rudy to preach moral values in his pursuit of religious conservatives, while at the same time ponying up $122,000 in summer plane fare to Sheldon Adelson, scion of the Las Vegas Sands empire. After all, isn't gambling an immoral act that often leads to vice and crime?

"You have to follow the money and ask, 'Why is Sheldon Adelson partnering with Rudy Giuliani?'" asked Stacey Cargill, an anti-gambling and Republican Party activist in Iowa. Cargill told the New York Daily News, "If Rudy Giuliani wants to be the crimefighting candidate, why is he partnering with a large and growing gambling empire?" (Adelson, who wants the state of Massachusetts to legalize casino gambling, has also helped bankroll Freedom's Watch, the hawkish White House front group.)

But Rudy will barely get scratched by this story. Republicans, who see themselves as the exemplars of "moral values," have long tolerated casino gambling, and thus made peace with their hypocrisy. Some religious conservative leaders, notably James Dobson, have made sporadic attempts to inveigh against the moral sin of gambling (Dobson, 2006: "Gambling--all types of gambling--is driven by greed and subsists on greed"), but many have simply chosen to ignore it.

I was struck by this disconnect back in February 1998, when the Republicans staged a big confab in Biloxi, Mississippi, spending most of their time condemning President Clinton's moral sins. Then, when the sessions ended, everybody would go back to their hotel the gaudy casinos that dotted the Gulf coastline.

A parade of potential presidential candidates showed up to strut their wares and talk up moral values, yet virtually none thought it odd that the party was meeting in the Grand Casino Biloxi Hotel. Only one '00 prospect spoke up - John Ashcroft. I still have my notes. He said: "We meet this afternoon in a place surrounded by money changers and risk takers. I think it's wrong. Our party should not sell its soul to the gambling lobby of this country...The truth is that gambling is a cancer on the soul of our nation."

Ashcroft, of course, got nowhere with that argument. Candidate George W. Bush would soon insist that he hated casino gambling; then, after he secured the '00 nomination, he took a quarter of a million bucks from gambling industry donors in Nevada.

In other words, few Republicans will care about Rudy's consorting with a casino tycoon. On the gambling issue, most in the party amended their moral principles a long time ago.