I didn’t see the famous floating cross. What I saw when I watched Mike Huckabee’s Christmas commercial was a nice man in a sweater sitting next to a brightly lit tree. He had easy warmth and big brown puppy-dog eyes, and he talked about taking a break from politics to remember the peace and joy of the season. Sounds good to me.
Only on second look did I see the white lines of the warmly lit bookcase, which formed a glowing cross. Someone had bothered to remove the books from that bookcase, or bothered not to put them in. Maybe they would have dulled the lines.
Is there a word for “This is nice” and “This is creepy”? For that is what I felt. This is so sweet-appalling.
I love the cross. The sight of it, the fact of it, saves me, literally and figuratively. But there is a kind of democratic politesse in America, and it has served us well, in which we are happy to profess our faith but don’t really hit people over the head with its symbols in an explicitly political setting, such as a campaign commercial, which is what Mr. Huckabee’s ad was.
I wound up thinking this: That guy is using the cross so I’ll like him. That doesn’t tell me what he thinks of Jesus, but it does tell me what he thinks of me. He thinks I’m dim. He thinks I will associate my savior with his candidacy. Bleh.
The ad was shrewd. The caucus is coming, the TV is on, people are home putting up the tree, and the other candidates are all over the tube advancing themselves and attacking someone else. Mr. Huckabee thinks, I’ll break through the clutter by being the guy who reminds us of the reason for the season, in a way that helps underscore that I’m the Christian candidate and those other fellas aren’t. As a break from the nattering argument, as a message that highlights something bigger than politics, it was refreshing.
Was the cross an accident? Please. It was as accidental as Mr. Huckabee’s witty response, when he accused those of questioning the ad of paranoia, was spontaneous. “Actually I will confess this, if you play this spot backwards it says ‘Paul is dead, Paul is dead, Paul is dead,’ “ he said. As Bill Safire used to say of clever moves, “That’s good stuff!”
Ken Mehlman, the former Republican chairman, once bragged in my presence that in every ad he did he put in something wrong—something that went too far, something debatable. TV producers, ever hungry for new controversy, would play the commercial over and over as pundits on the panel deliberated over its meaning. This got the commercial played free all over the news.
The cross is the reason you saw the commercial. The cross made it break through.
Mr. Huckabee is a telegenic presence, fluid and unself-conscious. The camera is his friend. It is not the potential exposer of his flaws but the conduit by which his warmth and intelligence can be more broadly known. This gift, and seeing the camera this way is a gift, carries greater implications in American politics than, say, in British politics. In Britain, public persona is important, as Tony Blair showed, but there you rise up in the parliamentary system. You have to learn to play well with the other children. You have to form alliances, handle a portfolio, create coalitions, lead within the party and then the country.
In American politics you don’t have to go through that grueling process. You can be born on TV. Some candidates for president have a closer relationship with the makeup woman at “Hannity” and the guy who mics you up on “Meet” than they do with state party chiefs and union leaders. Experience, background and positions can be trumped by killer spots or a dominating debate performance.
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This is some of Mr. Huckabee’s power. There’s the fact that he’s new, and the fact that Americans are in a funny historic moment: The lives they lead are good, and comfortable, but they sense deep down that the infrastructure of our good fortune is in many ways frail, that Citi may fall and Korea go crazy and some nut go kaboom. In such circumstances some would think a leader radically different—an outsider, a minister, a self proclaimed non-establishment type—might be an answer.
Mr. Huckabee reminds me of two governors who became president, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Like Mr. Clinton, he is a natural, charming, bright and friendly. Yet one senses something unsavory there, something not so nice. Like Mr. Bush, his approach to politics seems, at bottom, highly emotional, marked by great spurts of feeling and mighty declarations as to what the Lord wants. The problem with this, and with Bushian compassionate conservatism, which seems to have an echo in Mr. Huckabee’s Christianism, is that to the extent it is a philosophy, it is not a philosophy that allows debate. Because it comes down to “This is what God wants.” This is not an opener of discussion but a squelcher of it. It doesn’t expand the process, it frustrates it.
Mr. Huckabee is clever. He puts forth his policies, such as they are, based on a faith-based understanding of public policy, and if you disagree with his policies, or take a hard shot at them, or at him, he suggests the reason is that you look down on evangelicals. This creates a new fissure in a party already riven by fissures. He has been accused by some in the conservative press of tearing the party apart, but it was being torn apart before he got on the scene. His rise is not a cause of collapse but an expression of it.
He plays the victim well. Others want to “trip him up,” but he’ll “get my message out there.” His foes are “Wall Street-Washington” insiders, elitists. On the “Today” show he said his critics are the type who never liked evangelical Christians. When one of them runs, these establishment types say “ ‘Oh my gosh, now they’re serious, they don’t want to just show up and vote, they actually would want to be part of the discussion and really talk about issues that include hunger and poverty and things.’ “
This is a form of populist manipulation. Evangelical Christians have been strong in the Republican Party since the 1970s. President Bush and Karl Rove helped them become more important. The suggestion that they are a small and abused group within the GOP is strange. It is as if the Reagan Democrats, largely Catholic and suburban, who buoyed the Republican Party from the late ‘70s through 2004, and who were very much part of the GOP coalition, decided to announce that Catholics have been abused within the party, and it’s time for Christmas commercials with floating Miraculous Medals.
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Does Mr. Huckabee understand that his approach is making people uncomfortable? Does he see himself as divisive? He’s a bright man, so it’s hard to believe he doesn’t. But it’s working for him. It’s getting him his 30 points in Iowa in a crowded field.
Could he win the nomination? Who knows? It’s all a bubbling stew on the Republican side, and no one knows who’ll float to the top. In an interview this week with David Brody of CBN, Mr. Huckabee said people everywhere were coming to him and saying, “We are claiming Isaiah 54 for you, that the weapons formed against you will not prosper.”
Prayer is powerful. But Huckabee’s critics say he’s a manipulator with a mean streak and little knowledge of the world. And Isaiah 54 doesn’t say anything about self-inflicted wounds.