Huckabee: The Waning of the Religious Right?

Super Amazing Whopping Tuesday is almost upon us and the question is, what will it mean? For Senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain and former Governor Mitt Romney, we’ll know more Tuesday night. For former Governor Mike Huckabee, however, the writing is on the wall and the message is bad for him and his core constituency, the religious right. And that’s a good thing.Whether Governor Huckabee’s drops out or not after tomorrow’s almost-a-national-primary is pretty much a question of ego and stubbornness. Nonetheless, by February 6th it will be clear his chances of winning the GOP nomination are roughly equivalent to Rudy Giuliani’s chances of winning a Role Model of the Year Award from Focus on the Family.Governor Huckabee’s high watermark was Iowa where conservative Christians helped him score a surprising win. Having been written off mere weeks earlier, he was suddenly among the front runners. The press covered what he did and said. Opponents targeted him. He was a serious contender for the Republican nomination.

He was unable, however, to either build beyond his evangelical base or unite it. In some states (think New Hampshire) there were too few evangelicals to make much of a dent. In others (such as South Carolina) their support was split among several of the candidates.

The result: increasingly disappointing showings dropped Governor Huckabee back to the second tier where the votes are few and the dollars fewer. He’ll gain some delegates on February 5th, but not enough. And running low on funds will make it difficult for him to remain an active candidate.

There’s two items of note in Governor Huckabee’s unraveling. First, it displayed the arrogance of the media. Even though he was the trailing candidate, he should not have been shunted aside by CNN’s Anderson Cooper and the panelists at the Republican debate held last week. He’s still in the race. He still has a constituency. By relegating him to the role of stage prop the reporters created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Treat a candidate as irrelevant and by gosh he’ll become irrelevant. Even faster than he would have on his own.

The second, and more profound message of his campaign’s demise is what it says about the waning power of the religious right.

There was a time when it was their way or the highway (to Hell). Just ask Senator McCain circa 2000. Yet here we are, with the most open presidential election in decades and conservative Christians have to choose between the Senator McCain and Governor Romney?

If the religious right had come together behind a candidate a year ago they could have had a tremendous impact on the nomination. Whether it was Governor Huckabee, Senator Sam Brownback or someone else, united evangelical support for a candidate would have made that candidate a first tier candidate when it might have done some good.

Instead, they seemed content to have all the candidates traipse around to their various conventions to show respect — and, at times, unseemly obsequious. Senator McCain gave new meaning to the term “straight talk” in his efforts to make up with those who helped derail his campaign in 2000. Senator Romney performed a perfect 180 degree pirouette on various issues for their entertainment. But you could tell the candidates’ hearts weren’t in it. If either gains the White House their policies won’t follow the chosen path nearly as well and certainly not as fervently as a Huckabee Administration would.

Evangelicals could have had someone in the White House who not only believes that evolution is still an open issue, but would do something about it. Instead, the Republican GOP will be a politician hoping to please a constituency, not a true believer.

Why did they wait? Was it that Governor Huckabee has a populist streak that sometimes looks liberal? Were they hunting for electability? Or did they simply like all the attention and flattery they were receiving?

When they finally did start to rally behind Governor Huckabee it was too late in the game. And then they failed to follow through.

Conservative Christians will still be a factor come November, but by then a great deal of their impact will have dissipated. Many of the states in which they have a strong presence are safe for the Republicans. In some close they may make a difference, but far less than if they’d come together earlier.

For those of us who believe the influence of the religious right’s on the nation’s politics — and especially on the GOP — is unhealthy, this is all good news. It may signal the beginning of a trend where disagreeing with self-proclaimed messengers from on high doesn’t condemn a candidate to eternal damnation. And it could mark the return to politics where pursuing principles matter more than adherence to dogma.

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