- The Washington Times - Monday, January 7, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Confronted by Preacher Huckabee standing astride the Iowa caucus smirking, “Are you feelin’ Hucky, punk?,” many of my conservative pals are inclined to respond, “Shoot me now.”

But, if that seems a little dramatic, let’s try and rustle up an alternative. In response to the evangelical tide from the West, New Hampshire primary voters have figured, “Any old crusty, cranky, craggy coot in a storm”, and re-embraced John McCain. After all, Granite State conservatism is not known for its religious fervor: It prefers small government, low taxes, minimal regulation, the freedom to be left alone by the state. So they’re voting for a guy who opposed the Bush tax cuts, and imposed on the nation the most explicit restriction in political speech in years. Better yet, after a freezing first week of January and the snowiest December in a century, New Hampshire conservatives are goo-goo for a fellow who believes in the scariest of global-warming scenarios and all the big-government solutions necessary to avert them.

Well, OK, maybe we can rustle up an alternative to the alternative. Rudy Giuliani’s team are betting that after a Huck/McCain seesaw through the early states, by Jan. 29 Florida voters will be ready to unite their party behind a less divisive figure, if by “less divisive figure” you mean a pro-abortion gun-grabbing cross-dresser.

I can’t see things playing out quite like that. The principal rationale for Rudy’s candidacy is that he’s the national-security toughie who can beat Hillary. But it’s hard to conclude after Iowa that this is shaping up as a Code Orange election. And, as for Sen. Clinton Hillary, her Thursday night third-place was the nearest Bill and Hill have come to a Ceausescu balcony moment. In a world where even John Edwards can beat Hillary, who needs Rudy?

Way back a gazillion years ago, when Mrs. Clinton was first exploring the exploration of exploring the possibility of an exploratory committee, some wily GOPers were suggesting the Republicans trump her history-making first-woman-president card by drafting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

It turns out we dead white males on the right-wing were worrying unnecessarily: The Democrats trumped themselves. Liberal voters want desperately to cast a history-making vote and, if that’s your priority, Barack Obama is a much more appealing way to cast it than Hillary. Don’t worry about this “Change You Can Believe In” shtick. He doesn’t believe in it, and neither should you. He’s a fresh face on the same-old-same-old — the only change Democrats are looking for.

As for Mr. Huckabee, the thinking on the right is that the mainstream media are boosting him up because he is the Republican who’ll be easiest to beat. It’s undoubtedly true that they see him as the designated pushover, but in that they’re wrong. If Iowa’s choice becomes the nation’s and it’s MIke Huckabee vs Barack Obama this November, I would bet on Huck. As governor, as preacher and even as disc-jockey, he has spent his entire life in professions that depend on connecting with an audience and he is very good at it. His gag on “The Tonight Show” — “People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy that laid them off” — had a kind of brilliance: True, it is, at one level, cornball (imagine John Edwards doing it with all his smarmy sanctimoniousness) but it also devastatingly cuts to the nub of the difference between him and Mitt Romney.

It’s a disc-jockey line: the morning man on the radio is a guy doing a tricky job — he is a celebrity trying to pass himself off as a regular joe — which is pretty much what the presidential candidate has to do, too. Mr. Huckabee is good at that.

I don’t know whether the Jay Leno shtick was written for him by a professional, but, if so, by the time it came out of his mouth it sounded like him. When Huck’s campaign honcho, Ed Rollins, revealed the other day that he wanted to punch Mr. Romney in the teeth, Mitt had a good comeback: “I have just one thing to say to Mr. Rollins,” he began. “Please, don’t touch the hair.” Funny line — but it sounds like a line, like something written by a professional and then put in his mouth.

This is the Huckabee advantage. On stage, he is quick-witted and thinks on his feet. He is not paralyzed by consultants and trimmers and triangulators. Put him in a presidential debate and he’ll have sharper ripostes and funnier throwaways and more plausible self-deprecating quips than anyone on the other side. He’ll be a great campaigner. The problems begin when he stops campaigning and starts governing.

In the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan observed of Huck that, “his great power, the thing really pushing his supporters, is that they believe that what ails America and threatens its continued existence is not economic collapse or jihad, it is our culture.”

She’s right. It’s not the economy, stupid. The economy’s fine. It’s gangbusters. Indeed, despite John Edwards’ dinner-theater Charles Dickens routine about coatless girls shivering through the night because daddy has been laid off at the mill, the subtext of both Democrat and Republican messages is essentially that this country is so rich it can afford to be stupid — it can afford to pork up the federal budget; it can afford to put middle-class families on government health care; it can afford to surrender its borders.

There is a potentially huge segment of the population that thinks homo economicus is missing the point. They’re tired of the artificial and, indeed, creepily coercive secular multiculti pseudo-religion imposed on American grade schools.

I’m sympathetic to this pitch myself. Unlike Miss Noonan, I think it’s actually connected to the jihad, in the sense that radical Islamism is an opportunist enemy that has arisen in the wake of the Western world’s one-way multiculturalism.

In the long run, the relativist mush peddled in our grade schools is a national security threat. But, even in the short term, it’s a form of child abuse that cuts off America’s next generation from the glories of their inheritance.

Where I part company with Huck’s supporters is in believing he is any kind of solution. He’s friendlier to the teachers’ unions than any other so-called “cultural conservative” — which is why in New Hampshire he is the first Republican to be endorsed by the National Education Association. His health-care pitch is Attack Of The Fifty Foot Nanny, beginning with his nationwide smoking ban.

This is, as Jonah Goldberg put it, compassionate conservatism on steroids — big paternalistic government that can only enervate even further “our culture.” So Iowa chose to reward, on the Democratic side, a proponent of the conventional secular left, and, on the Republican side, a proponent of a new Christian left. If that’s the choice, this is going to be a long election year.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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