Instapundit this morning linked to an article by John Fund today in the Wall Street Journal about GOP candidate (and former Arkansas governor) Mike Huckabee. Huckabee is enjoying a bit of a surge lately, I think because he is himself very engaging, but also because there is a vacuum, as it were, in the GOP, waiting to be filled.
Conservative activists in the GOP are not happy. Arizona Senator John McCain is, on many issues, the most conservative; yet conservatives can't forget his betrayal on the First Amendment, that is, his McCain-Feingold Law that constricts free speech in many ways. Beyond that, many conservatives simply don't trust him.
A lot of conservatives don't trust former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney either; how many times can someone have an "awakening" on the subject of abortion? And his series of awakenings have so conveniently coincided with the election cycle: he was prolife, until he ran against Sen. Ted Kennedy; then, when he was safely past re-election as governor of one of the most liberal states in the union, and looking ahead to presidential primaries, he had yet another awakening.
The problems for conservatives with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani are manifest, I think I need not go into them again.
Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson was supposed to the great savior for the right; but those conservatives who look very closely have reason to be concerned. Tennessee is a state that while it often sends up rather moderate GOPers, it can elect solid conservatives. There's no question which sort Thompson was when he came to the Senate.
It's no trick for such a figure to sound good to conservatives nationally, and--I am not kidding about this--having a Southern drawl helps. (For some reason, a number of people expect someone who talks that way not to be a liberal. Note that the last three successful Democratic candidates for president all spoke "Southern"; while a yankeefied Democrat hasn't won the presidency since 1960, and that was a very close matter, and you can make a very convincing argument that Kennedy actually lost. And note that Hilary Clinton has been heard speaking Southern on the campaign trail.)
But the actual record for Thompson is that he wasn't particularly forceful or aggressive for any conservative cause; he pretty much did as much as was really necessary for him to do, as GOP Senator from Tennessee. As it is, he, too, supported McCain's Free Speech Restriction Act, and still defends it half-heartedly, and he has some unsavory associations as a lobbyist.
So conservative activists and opinionators are looking for a standard-bearer, and now Huckabee is getting a look.
I went to read John Fund's article, expecting that it would be something of a hit-piece: the Wall Street Journal's editorial department is generally conservative, its writers are very engaged in political issues across the board, but their passion is economic issues. And it was such a hit-piece, usefully so. I mean, you can't rely on the mainstream media to get these things right. For really close analysis of what distinguishes competing candidates in primaries, you need to look elsewhere. Sometimes you do look at those who have a particular axe to grind, since you know, if there's something telling that might otherwise escape general attention, that helps their point, they'll bring it out. If you want to be clear whats different between these guys on trade, for example, read someone who really cares about the issue, and so forth on all the issues.
Back to Huckabee. His problem is that just as Giuliani is wrong on prolife and marriage, Huckabee is wrong on taxes and spending; really, on the issue of big government in general. This is someone who casually suggested recently he'd favor a national ban on smoking in public places, and who seems a bit of a zealot on matters of diet. And just as Romney and to some extent, Giuliani, have undergone convenient "awakenings," so has Huckabee, and sensible people shake their heads saying, "how gullible do you think we are?"
If you are a student of history, you may recall that certain figures have been deemed by historians as so decisive, the times that followed them are named after them. In politics, you have the "Jacksonian Era" that followed the rise and presidency of Andrew Jackson. For many elections after, candidates in both parties tried to emulate Jackson or claim his mantle, or otherwise had to deal with his legacy. Something similar happened with Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.
And the last such figure was clearly Ronald Reagan. I would argue Bill Clinton definitely fits into this pattern, because Clinton himself admits he studied Reagan, and imitated his success in many ways; and in governance, he largely left Reagan's policies and paradigms in place. Who said, "The era of Big Government is over?" Who signed into law the only significant rollback in a federal entitlement--Welfare Reform? Clinton is seen, rightly or wrongly, as seeking a policy of growth, stable money and prosperity. And he was--like it or not--a great communicator.
So a good question to ask is, are we still in the Age of Reagan?
This brings me to the title of this post. You can see something curious happening in the Republican Party: questions of identity, an amazing loss of credibility on the issues that the GOP previously "owned" such as spending and being against big government. And you have a putative front-runner--Giuliani--who represents only part of the coalition, between "social" and "fiscal" conservatives, and now you have someone like Huckabee who may be the representative of the other part. But Reagan, you see, represented both and appealed to both; Bush I and Bush II both presented themselves as representatives of both. Will 2008 be the year the coalition is split apart?
These things happen all the time in races for other positions--and it's not pretty. There are always recriminations along the way, especially if the nominee goes down at the election, as often (but not always) happens. The stakes in these things are huge, but not in the way many people think. The Ohio GOP is a shambles in large measure because the wrong sort of Republican, the me-too moderate crowd, controlled things, first Voinovich and then Taft; a conservative was allowed to captain the Titanic only after it had hit the iceberg. As I've written before, its important to keep a long view, and not focus on one particular election. Elections matter, but in broader ways than may be apparent.
Of course, it's awfully early. We might do well to remember that no one has cast a vote except for the chattering class, bloggers included!