Monday, December 10, 2007

The Huck and the Holy

In the latest church news – excuse me, Republican presidential campaign news – we have some fresh developments concerning GOP prospect Mike Huckabee and his running mate, God. (Or perhaps it's the other way around.)

Over the weekend, the Associated Press reported that Huckabee, during his unsuccessful 1992 bid for a U.S. Senate seat, had willingly shared his concerns about gay people. He told an AP questionnaire, “I feel homosexuality is an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle, and we now know it can pose a dangerous public health risk.” Since presidential hopeful Huckabee stressed just the other day that his convictions are “deeply held, consistent, authentic,” we can only assume that today he still sees gay people as he saw them in 1992 – although his ’92 biblical admonition seems at odds with the sunny image he’s currently seeking to project.

His ’92 judgment on gay people – and the fact that he said nothing this weekend to distance himself from that judgment - certainly won’t hurt him in Iowa and South Carolina. He needs religious conservative voters to sustain his insurgent campaign, and they generally share that judgment anyway. But it’s hard to imagine that, if he somehow snagged the ’08 GOP nomination, his views on gays would endear him to the centrist swing voters who are crucial to winning in November. Swing voters tend to be fairly tolerant of gay people, and generally averse to biblical admonitions. And polls indicate that young voters under the age of 30 are even more tolerant; their demographic supports the concept of gay marriage more than any other.

But what voters in general tend to dislike is a double-talking politician. Consider Huckabee's response yesterday on Fox News, when asked about his other ’92 statement that gays should be quarantined from the general population in order to contain the AIDS epidemic. (Never mind the fact that, seven years earlier, the federal government had publicly concluded that AIDS was not spread through casual contact.) Huckabee, in his response yesterday, engaged in some evasive wordplay that would have put Bill Clinton to shame.

Here’s what he had said in 1992: “If the federal government is truly serious about doing something with the AIDS virus, we need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague....It is difficult to understand the public policy towards AIDS. It is the first time in the history of civilization in which the carriers of a genuine plague have not been isolated from the general population…”

When asked about that statement on Fox News, here’s what he said: “I didn’t say that we should quarantine.”

Well, actually, that’s exactly what he said. His ’92 phrase (“we need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague”) is synonymous with “should.”

But Huckabee, clearly sensing yesterday that he’d taken the wrong tack, didn’t try to parse his words any further. Rather than continuing to try to weasle out of what he said in '92, he quickly reverted to consistent-conviction mode, and declared that he would stand by his old comments rather than try to “recant” them. So, with respect to pleasing his growing fan base on the religious right, he probably emerged unscathed from that episode.

And on the topic of nurturing that fan base, perhaps he did his best work the other day at Liberty University, the school founded by the late Jerry Falwell. When a student asked him to explain the reasons for his rapid ascendance in the Republican presidential polls, here was Huckabee’s diagnosis:

“There's only one explanation for it, and it's not a human one. It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of five thousand people. (Applause) That's the only way that our campaign can be doing what it's doing. And I'm not being facetious nor am I trying to be trite. There literally are thousands of people across this country who are praying that a little will become much, and it has. And it defies all explanation, it has confounded the pundits. And I'm enjoying every minute of them trying to figure it out, and until they look at it, from a, just experience beyond human, they'll never figure it out. And it's probably just as well. That's honestly why it's happening.”

Translation: He thinks he’s rising in the polls because it is God’s will.

How naïve of me to believe that presidential candidates rise or fall on things like, you know, issues and positions and other earthly factors such as character and image. The Huck seeks to instruct us that the real explanation is “not a human one.” His basic message is that secular empiricism is so last century.

Again, if he gets the nomination, let’s see how centrist swing voters respond to a guy who apparently sees himself as God’s instrument. Given the current White House occupant's insistence that he too was guided by the Lord (regarding his decision to invade Iraq, President Bush told Bob Woodward, "I was praying for the strength to do God's will"), that kind of claim might not be viewed as an asset this time around.


In print yesterday, I assessed the GOP debates via the satirical/absurdist route, although that kind of format is not designed for the humor-impaired.


Last Friday, I wrote here about a Democratic focus group, and its misgivings about the '08 Democratic field. Other journalists watched the proceedings as well. Here's another account, by the Washington columnist Al Hunt.