Tuesday evening, John McCain clinched the Republican nomination for president, and Mike Huckabee, the last remaining contender, conceded defeat. Huckabee's campaign, and the failure of the Religious Right to support him, has been one of the most interesting and puzzling stories of this primary season
While Huckabee is certainly a social conservative, he refused to toe the line on a number of issues. And that is why I say the monologue of the Religious Right has ended and the evangelical agenda has broadened.
In the Republican YouTube debate, the candidates were asked if they believed every word of the Bible. Huckabee said that while some of the Bible was allegorical, we needed to take much of it much more seriously than we do - like the words of Jesus which say, "As you have done to the least of these you have done to me." This is not the text that most conservatives quote when asked about the authority of the Bible. In an interview with Reuters in January, Huckabee spoke about the broadening evangelical agenda:
Unquestionably there is a maturing that is going on within the evangelical movement. It doesn't mean that evangelicals are any less concerned about traditional families and the sanctity of life. It just means that they also realize that we have real responsibility in areas like disease and hunger and poverty and that these are issues that people of faith have to address.
And when conservative columnists like Robert Novak attacked Huckabee for not being a "real conservative," this is precisely what they meant. When Huckabee was governor of Arkansas, he advocated spending money on poor people - behavior which is offensive to the economically conservative wing of the Republican Party. While Huckabee is a consistent social conservative, he is suspect by the party's economic conservatives who, of course, don't support spending any money on overcoming poverty. Huckabee disagrees with them.
On immigration, in that same debate, there was an all out attack on "illegal aliens" who became the new scapegoat, the new "other," for the Republican candidates - and the preferred way to energize their primary base. Except for the grateful acknowledgement from John McCain that "these are God's children too," every Republican candidate preceded to demagogue the issue, beating up on undocumented immigrants for crass political gain.
But then Mike Huckabee spoke. He agreed that our borders need to be protected and enforced (I do too), but then defended his support for a failed bill in Arkansas to give scholarships to exceptional students - including undocumented children. He said he didn't want to punish children for their parents' illegal actions because "that's not what we typically do in this country." This educational plan, he said, was intended to bring people from illegal to legal status. He continued, saying that he had received a good education, but if he hadn't, "I wouldn't be standing on this stage; I might be picking lettuce; I might be a person who needed government support." Then he said, "In all due respect, we're a better country than to punish children for what their parents did." Although he later moved more to the right in the heat of the primaries, that response remains.
Is that ultimately why the leaders of the Religious Right didn't support Mike Huckabee until late in the primary season? Is it because many on the Religious Right are really more committed to economic conservatism that social conservatism? Have religious conservatives gotten so used to their access to power that they are afraid to risk standing for principle over pragmatism? Huckabee was the most consistent social conservative Republican in the race, including winning the straw poll at the FRC Values Voters Summit, yet most of the leaders of the Religious Right never rallied around him. But the evangelical base did