The Huckabee/Obama Challenge

There is little question that of the two electoral coalitions that dominate our politics, it is the Republican one whose internal disputes and fissures are the deepest and most threatening to its future prospects. And the forces represented by the Republican presidential candidates are currently pushing at each other, the fingers of blame ready to point once November rolls around. Nonetheless, there is an interesting parallel currently at play in how Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee are being received by the key activists and leaders whom one might have expected to embrace them with the greatest vigor. Obama and Huckabee are viewed by the country's black leadership and evangelical leadership, respectively, with a degree of ambivalence and even suspicion that few would have predicted.

There are plenty of important differences between the two worth discussing. But both candidacies highlight generational divides and bring into question theories of political engagement that have guided the two movements for decades. While Obama's candidacy has raised complicated questions for a generation of black leaders who came of age in the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s, Huckabee's candidacy is making a later generation of religious-right leaders, those who emerged in the 1980s, deeply uncomfortable. He may be running to be the GOP standard-bearer, but the combination of the depth of his commitment to evangelical Christianity and his sometimes less than perfect devotion to Republican catechism could call into question just whom some of those leaders are serving.

Movement leaders almost always have influence not because they control a particular institution or wield some kind of directly instrumental power, but because of a general acknowledgment that they speak for large numbers of people. Today's religious right leaders are no different -- they are influential simply because people agree that they are. Take Richard Land, whose official position is as head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, which acts as the denomination's public-policy arm. Land doesn't lead the SBC, nor would he be able to command the 16 million members it claims to do anything. Or Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council. Other than act as a press operation to get Perkins on television and quoted in newspapers, it's hard to see what the FRC actually does. Yet Land and Perkins are sought out on a daily basis to speak on behalf of the nation's conservative Christians -- a privilege they don't demonstrate any desire to give up.

Like many other leaders of the religious right, Land and Perkins haven't signed on with Huckabee, despite the fact that Huckabee himself was once the head of the Arkansas chapter of the SBC. The problem? Huckabee may be a religious zealot, but he doesn't seem like a Republican zealot, particularly when it comes to that most sacred of GOP worship objects, the altar before which all must kneel: supply-side economics.

This is the grand bargain the religious right made with the Republican Party in Reagan's day: We will come to your side, bring with us our multitudes, proclaim that you are the true and only vessel of God's will in politics. In exchange you will grant us access, influence, and your unbending line on abortion and gays obtaining civil rights. And we will adopt your economic dreams as our own, clothe them in holy vestments, testify to the godliness of tax cuts for the rich.

And so it has been for over two decades. Yet along comes Huckabee, all smooth talk and clever quips, with a record full of troubling transgressions from supply-side purity, talking critically of "greed" and criticizing Mitt Romney in terms terrifyingly populist. "Most Americans want their next president to remind them of the guy they work with," say his TV ads, "not the guy who laid them off." It's a fair bet that more than a few rank-and-file evangelicals question the notion that if Jesus returned tomorrow, one of his main goals would be reducing the capital gains tax. And so Huckabee's success calls the entire bargain the religious right made with the GOP into question.

As a result of the language he has been employing, and while the religious-right leadership is a little frightened of Huckabee, the moneyed class that controls the GOP is positively horrified. It's as though the shop foreman burst into headquarters and announced that he'd like to be considered to be the corporation's next CEO. The board stares back at him with amazement -- we're sure the men and women working the line appreciate you coming up here, Mr. Huckabee, but we'll select our leader the way we always do, from the ranks of upper management. Why don't you just head on back down to the factory floor and make sure the machines are running properly, and leave the decision-making to us?

This comes at a time when the most dynamic and successful evangelical ministers, though still on the conservative team, are questioning whether abortion and gay marriage are really the greatest threats we face. They're talking more about topics like genocide in Darfur, AIDS in Africa, hunger in America. And when they do, they come dangerously close to the idea that perhaps another Republican victory won't really bring heaven here on earth. And perhaps the greatest threat Huckabee poses to the leadership of the religious right is that he could lose the election and usurp their roles to become the leader of evangelical America. It isn't hard to envision that after the election is over, he could become the most sought-after spokesperson for conservative Christians.

As for Obama, his success has left a generation of black leaders similarly uneasy -- not because he'll take their jobs, but because he could make them seem less relevant to the future. Forty years after Martin Luther King was struck down, his contemporaries are reaching the end of their careers, carrying the moral ballast of their past heroic deeds, still lionized by Democrats and acknowledged as the representatives of America's black community.

Yet seemingly from out of nowhere comes this potential black president, one who was not nurtured in the civil-rights movement, whose discussions of race are carefully shorn of confrontational language, who constructed a career on winning strong support from whites, and who does not appear to owe his political success to them, at least not in any immediate way that demands repayment. In fact, his entire campaign is built on the idea that the 1960s are over and we should put them behind us. His appeal to whites comes in no small part from the idea that we can be delivered to our post-racial promised land through the force of our collective good will, not by demanding justice and seizing it from those who would stand in the way.

So the generation of black leaders who came of age in the 1960s is unsurprisingly ambivalent about Obama. Jesse Jackson endorsed him -- then criticized him for not speaking out in the case of the "Jena Six" (the South Carolina newspaper The State quoted Jackson saying Obama was "acting like he's white"). Others, such Congressman John Lewis, who was severely beaten on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma in 1965, have endorsed Hillary Clinton. But recent polls have shown rank-and-file black voters moving quickly to Obama after a long period of sticking with Clinton.

There is little doubt that if someone other than Obama becomes the nominee of the Democratic Party, blacks will still vote Democratic with undiminished unanimity. And the Democrats certainly need these votes: since African Americans are around 12 percent of the population, and the typical Democratic candidate gets around 90 percent of their votes, in a closely divided election, they will make up around 20 percent of the Democrat's votes, depending on turnout. But the Republicans need the evangelical vote even more. Evangelicals made up over a third of George Bush's votes in 2004, with the most religious among them (those attending church at least once a week) comprising nearly a quarter of his votes.

So if they lost any substantial portion of that base, the GOP would be in real trouble. And the Democrat most likely to steal it would actually be Barack Obama. With the exception of Huckabee, Obama sounds more at home in a church than anyone else running for president. (Two years ago, at an appearance at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, Sen. Sam Brownback said to Obama, "Welcome to my house." When it came Obama's turn to speak, he said, "There is one thing I've got to say, Sam: This is my house, too. This is God's house.") He could also benefit from the stereotype that says that all black people are religious. (There is the matter of the e-mail hate campaign currently underway against Obama, charging falsely that he is a secret Muslim, but that's a topic for another day.)

It may not be the most likely outcome, but if Obama is the Democratic nominee, and evangelicals grow bitter over the GOP establishment's efforts to take out Huckabee (presuming those efforts are successful), some of them might actually pull the lever for a Democrat. The long-term consequences for the conservative coalition of that could be grave indeed.

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