By the Way: McCain v. Huckabee

Am I the only one who found the Republican debates just a tiny bit risible? All of these candidates were falling all over themselves to declare that they were the true conservatives in this race, the true heirs of Ronald Reagan. Given the condition of the country after seven years of conservativism—arguably twenty-seven years of conservativism—the specter of the Republican candidates jostling with one another over who is the most conservative looks a bit like a group of pyromaniacs arguing over who’s the best arsonist.

With Mitt Romney’s departure from the race and with Ron Paul scaling back his effort, that effectively leaves two: John McCain, the clear frontrunner, and Mike Huckabee, who vowed to continue his campaign for the Republican nomination. “I didn’t major in math,” Huckabee said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “I majored in miracles, and I still believe in them too.”

Huckabee also believes that the world was created in six twenty-four-hour days, as he declared in another of those memorable Republican debates.

With the exception of James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who endorsed Huckabee, conservatives are apoplectic about their choices. I caught Rush Limbaugh in high dudgeon on the way to class yesterday and Sean Hannity on the way home. Ann Coulter, in full pro-wrestling mode, pledged to campaign for Hillary Clinton if McCain was the Republican nominee, an offer the Clinton campaign should find a way to refuse.

So we’re faced with the prospect of McCain pandering after the goodwill of conservatives all the way to the Republican National Convention. And, despite the media-generated myth that McCain is above pandering, he knows very well how to do it. Consider his unflagging support for the war in Iraq, or his embrace of George W. Bush after Bush had savaged him and his family in the Republican primaries in 2000. Or his speech this week before the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Expect even more impassioned statements in the months ahead about the necessity of the “War on Terror,” the importance of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and the evils of illegal immigration. And, in a sop to the religious right, look for more rhetoric about making abortion illegal. (As someone who finds abortion itself reprehensible but who is also a libertarian on the issue—I think the government should have no jurisdiction whatsoever over gestation—I’ve been trying for the better part of three decades now to have a conservative explain to me how he reconciles making abortion illegal with the conservative mantra of less government interference in people’s lives.)

The winnowing of the Republican field probably curtails the spectacle of candidates arguing over who is the true conservative. McCain, the presumptive nominee, apparently believes that he has to make his case to the satisfaction of the Limbaugh-Hannity-Coulter crowd.

Still, perhaps we shouldn’t count Huckabee out. Hey, if God can create the world in six days, the Huckster might yet emerge as the Republican nominee.