Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The canny politics of "Merry Christmas"

As a political tactician, Mike Huckabee is one clever guy. His new TV ad – a video Christmas card extolling the birth of Jesus, complete with Christmas tree and Silent Night soundtrack and the candidate encased in a warm and fuzzy sweater – sets a precedent with its the deft fusing of Christianity and electioneering. Most importantly, the ad potentially helps Huckabee in a number of ways.

The text: “Are you about worn out of all the television commercials you’ve been seeing? Mostly about politics. I don’t blame you. At this time of year sometimes it’s nice to pull aside from all of that and just remember that what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ and being with our family and our friends. I hope that you and your family have a magnificent Christmas season. And on behalf of all of us, God bless and Merry Christmas. I’m Mike Huckabee and I approve this message.”

First, it reminds the Christian conservative voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that Huckabee is one of them, a rare candidate willing to put his faith front and center and say it loud and clear. And he’s timing it for the holiday season, when traditional campaign ads might strike many viewers as intrusive and inappropriate.

Second, it sounds like a purely apolitical appeal – how can anybody object to a guy who says “Merry Christmas?” – whereas in reality we should not forget that this is a politician who is taking money from his campaign kitty in order to say “Merry Christmas.” What he’s really saying is, “Vote for me, I’m with Jesus.”

Third, it’s a sly dig at rival Mitt Romney, who has been wearing out Iowans with all his television commercials. Huckabee can’t hope to match Romney’s expenditures, so he’s inviting “worn out” voters to summarily reject whatever Romney puts on the air – especially any and all attack ads that go after Huckabee’s record. He wants voters to ask themselves, “Why are these other candidates saying such mean things about the nice Christian man in the warm and fuzzy sweater?”

Fourth, it’s naturally the kind of ad that draws a lot of media attention. And, for Huckabee, media attention serves two purposes. He gets more bang for the buck, thanks to all the news coverage he doesn’t have to pay for. And every time the secular talking heads on TV assail his invocations of Christ, he looks like a hero to Christian conservatives who dislike the secular talking heads on TV.

All told, it’s an ad that well serves Huckabee’s short-term interests. More problematic is its broader implicit message, and what it potentially says about a Huckabee-led Republican party. It is not a message of inclusion.

George W. Bush’s faults notwithstanding, he and his handlers had repeatedly sought to reach out to non-Christians, particularly Muslims and Jews. Bush won the Muslim-American vote by a landslide in 2000. And the Bush team has spent most of this decade trying to woo more Jews to the GOP - with measurable success. In 2000, 19 percent of Jewish voters cast ballots for Bush; in 2004, 25 percent did so. The Bush people felt strongly about Israel, as a philosophical matter, but they also saw the pragmatic upside of their strategy. Jews comprise only four percent of the electorate, but they’re heavily concentrated in big states, including potential swing states such as Florida and Ohio.

But now we have Huckabee, a candidate who, in one ad, bills himself solely as a “Christian leader,” and, in the new ad, defines “this time of year” as being solely about “the celebration of the birth of Christ.” It’s my general understanding that a president is supposed to lead all Americans, regardless of faith (or lack thereof). And if my calendar is correct, “this time of year” also includes the celebration of Hannukkah, which ended only last Tuesday.

If Huckabee’s candidacy truly takes off (he's now virtually tied with Rudy Giuliani in a new national poll of GOP voters), it will be interesting to see how his megachurch message is received outside the Christian conservative community. Elections are won in the middle; the middle includes a lot of people who dislike overt religiosity on the stump, and a lot of people who don’t worship at all (regarding the latter, Huckabee was citing the Bible when he wrote in a 1998 book that such people “are more often than not immoral, impure, and improvident”). Put another way, inclusiveness wins elections.

But I suppose that Huckabee skeptics can console themselves with the thought that the new TV ad could have been worse. It could have ended with a portentous voiceover: “I’m Jesus Christ, and I approved this message.”


Any other thoughts that I had today (coherent or otherwise) were shared on the radio. I talked national politics on Philadelphia NPR this morning. It's archived here.