New York Times Op-Ed Columnist
By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Published: January 7, 2008
Thank you, Senator Obama. You’ve defeated Senator Clinton in Iowa. It looks as if you’re about to beat her in New Hampshire. There will be no Clinton Restoration. A nation turns its grateful eyes to you.
But gratitude for sparing us a third Clinton term only goes so far. Who, inquiring minds want to know, is going to spare us a first Obama term? After all, for all his ability and charm, Barack Obama is still a liberal Democrat. Some of us would much prefer a non-liberal and non-Democratic administration. We don’t want to increase the scope of the nanny state, we don’t want to undo the good done by the appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, and we really don’t want to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory in Iraq.
For me, therefore, the most interesting moment in Saturday night’s Republican debate at St. Anselm College was when the candidates were asked what arguments they would make if they found themselves running against Obama in the general election.
The best answer came, not surprisingly, from the best Republican campaigner so far — Mike Huckabee. He began by calmly mentioning his and Obama’s contrasting views on issues from guns to life to same-sex marriage. This served to remind Republicans that these contrasts have been central to G.O.P. success over the last quarter-century, and to suggest that Huckabee could credibly and comfortably make the socially conservative case in an electorally advantageous way.
Huckabee went on to pay tribute to Obama for his ability “to touch at the core of something Americans want” in seeming to move beyond partisanship. And, he added, Senator Obama is “a likable person who has excited people about wanting to vote who have not voted in the past.” Huckabee was of course aware that in praising Obama he was recommending himself.
I was watching the debate at the home of a savvy, moderately conservative New Hampshire Republican. It was at this moment that he turned to me and said: “You know, I’ve been a huge skeptic about Huckabee. I’m still not voting for him Tuesday. But I’ve got to say — I like him. And I wonder — could he be our strongest nominee?”
He could be. After the last two elections, featuring the well-born George Bush and Al Gore and John Kerry, Americans — even Republicans! — are ready for a likable regular guy. Huckabee seems to be that. He came up from modest origins. He served as governor of Arkansas for more than a decade. He fought a successful battle against being overweight. These may not be utterly compelling qualifications for the presidency. I’m certainly not ready to sign up.
Still, as the conservative writer Michelle Malkin put it, “For the work-hard-to-get-ahead strivers who represent the heart and soul of the G.O.P., there are obvious, powerful points of identification.” And they speak to younger voters who are not yet committed to the G.O.P. In Iowa, Huckabee did something like what Obama did on the Democratic side, albeit on a smaller scale. He drew new voters to the caucuses. And he defeated Mitt Romney by almost two to one, and John McCain by better than four to one, among voters under 45.
Now it’s true that many conservatives have serious doubts about Huckabee’s positions, especially on foreign policy, and his record, particularly on taxes. The conservative establishment is strikingly hostile to Huckabee — for both good and bad reasons. But voters seem to be enjoying making up their own minds this year. And Huckabee is a talented politician.
His campaigning in New Hampshire has been impressive. At a Friday night event at New England College in Henniker, he played bass with a local rock band, Mama Kicks. One secular New Hampshire Republican’s reaction: “Gee, he’s not some kind of crazy Christian. He’s an ordinary American.”
In general, here in New Hampshire he’s emphasized social issues far less than in Iowa (though he doesn’t waffle when asked about them). Instead he’s stressed conservative economic themes, seamlessly (if somewhat inconsistently) weaving together a pitch for limited government with a message that government needs to do more to address the concerns of the struggling middle class. This latter point seems to be resonating, as headlines in local papers announce an increase in the national unemployment rate amid speculation about a coming recession.
Some Democrats are licking their chops at the prospect of a Huckabee nomination. They shouldn’t be. For one thing, Michael Bloomberg would be tempted to run in the event of an Obama-Huckabee race — and he would most likely take votes primarily from Obama. But whatever Bloomberg does, the fact is that the Republican establishment spent 2007 underestimating Mike Huckabee. If Huckabee does win the nomination, it would be amusing if Democrats made the same mistake in 2008.
New York Times Op-Ed Columnist