Huckabee’s madrassas and the Republicans’ structural problem

You can’t get elected President as a raving winger lunatic. But you can’t get nominated via the Republican primaries except as a raving winger lunatic. That’s a problem if you’re a Republican who wants to be President or someone who wants to see a Republican elected President.

Matt Yglesias thinks that Mike Huckabee’s “Mau Mau” comment about Obama was a mere gaffe, and therefore unimportant in considering his chances of winning a general election in 2012 or 2016. My reading of the situation is that Huckabee’s problem is more profound than that.

Huckabee’s latest comments seem to support my side of that argument.

Huckabee has been trying, with some success up to now, to sound very conservative (as defined by the Teahadis) but sane (as defined by the median voter). If that works, he might be able both to get the nomination and to win in November.

His problem – the problem of anyone trying to be elected as a Republican – is that the Teahadi worldview is somewhat severed from consensus reality. For example, the Teahadis really, really, really hate the President. They think he’s an alien in thought and perhaps in fact, a socialist, maybe a Muslim. The median voter believes none of that mishegas. And neither does the conventional-wisdom political reporter. So a candidate who flirts with birtherism is going to be treated – properly – as a loon. (Yes, much of the standard Republican economic mantra is also insane by any objective standard, but neither the median voter nor the CW reporter knows that.)

Huckabee understands the situation. So, when he talks to the mainstream media, he laughs at birthers. But he thought he could get away with saying something different to winger talk-show hosts.

That was probably true when he was running for Governor. The thing is, the Intertubes are making such a market-segmentation approach harder and harder. At the Presidential level, it’s virtually impossible.

That brings us to the latest incident. Asked on another winger talk show (Bryan Fischer of American Family Radio) about the previous flap, Huckabee admitted that Indonesia wasn’t actually in East Africa but stressed the Obama-as-alien theme: “Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary Clubs, not madrassas.” That’s just not going to play well in Peoria.

If anyone could have pulled off the requisite trick, it would have been Huckabee. Not only is he smart and self-controlled, he also has major religious-right chops as a Baptist preacher. His accent alone makes it clear that he’s not an elitist cosmopolitan like Romney. So he might have gotten away with not reciting all the nonsense and still gotten the True Believer vote in the primaries.

But the fact that Huckabee has now doubled down suggests to me that he doesn’t think he can make that work. He can’t run for the Republican nomination for President without appearing on winger radio, and he can’t appear on winger radio and sound sane to the rest of the world.

Maybe this really is a just a book tour, and Huckabee has decided to sit out 2012. But it’s hard to see how Romney or Pawlenty or Daniels gets the nomination without mouthing some of the same slogans, or how anyone who says obviously insane things can escape being labeled a nutcase. And what he’s saying now is going to come back to haunt Huckabee if he runs in 2016, unless something happens to make the outgoing President Obama as hated as the outgoing President Bush was in 2008.

That’s why I say that the Tea Party, as useful as it was to them this past November, has created a major structural problem for the Republicans in contending for the White House.

I’ve been known to be unduly optimistic about politics, so take this with a grain of salt. But it’s hard for me to see how anyone manages to thread this needle.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

9 thoughts on “Huckabee’s madrassas and the Republicans’ structural problem”

  1. When I read “(Yes, much of the standard Republican economic mantra is also insane by any objective standard, but neither the median voter nor the CW reporter knows that.)” I thought “Huh ? What ?1 Does Mark Kleiman think that Republican foreign policy is sane ? And what about inviting fetuses to testify.”

    Reminds me of the joke about the guy who got two ties from his mother for his birthday. When he visited her, he was careful to wear one. She said “what you didn’t like the other one ?”
    (note how carefully I elide their notional religious heritage in a display of political correctitude which I just ruined).

    Seriously though, the median voter absolutely opposes the Republican economic mantra. Most US adults (and even most voters) want higher taxes on rich people and corporations. A similarly large majority supports tighter environmental regulation. The median voter was not enthusiastic about deregulating banks or the repulsive banrkuptcy reform (the deregulation bills were signed by Clinton 8 years before most of the public had any idea what was going on).
    And any sane person who has any sympathy (or even pity) for the Republican party never mentions privatizing social security.

  2. I would tend to agree that this guy’s going nowhere near the White House, except the GOP has to nominate *somebody,* and I can’t see it being Palin. Romney’s just not that likable, and too non-insane for them. Then there’s a bunch of governors running around, and they’re usually not that crazy either, not enough to get through a GOP primary. So maybe it will be this guy, who’s clearly appealing to racism. Anybody remember the “Mario … Mario” skit on SNL?

  3. I too find these comments baffling, having long seen Huckabee as the most dangerous GOP candidate-in-waiting due to his obvious intelligence and articulate manner of speaking. However, I think he may have decided to sit out 2012 — one clue is the “Ted Kennedy” theory of candidacy, i.e., seeing if the prospective candidate has abandoned any attempt at weight control. Huckabee was definitely heftier on Colbert the other night, so I am inclined to rule him out. And although he sounded non-birther on Colbert, if he is indeed sitting this one out he has little to lose by letting any closeted birther sentiments out into the daylight.

  4. I don’t get why this statement “Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary Clubs, not madrassas.” won’t play in Peoria. I guess I’m just missing something, but it seems to me that most Americans wouldn’t think too consciously about that statement or it’s implications. I think it’s just subtle enough to affect certain voters at the margin. And if Huck doesn’t roll out the Total-Crazy, but just drops these nuggets here and there, then sure, I can see him gain a few more votes than he loses with such comments.

    And if “the median voter absolutely opposes the Republican economic mantra”, why do Republicans keep winning elections at certain times and places, and why do we keep getting Republican economic policy? I mean, shouldn’t the median voter realize after 30 years what they’re a voting for by voting Republican? I’m not sure how useful the preferences of the median voter are if they continue to vote for people who enact policy in opposition to those stated preferences.

  5. Matt:

    If the argument that the President was a foreigner was going to stick, it would have already. Republicans have been making versions of this argument ever since Reverand Wright, and they have never worked.

    Their base may love these slanders, but the vast majority of Americans don”t buy them and think Obama is a patriotic American, even if they disagree with him.

  6. @ Matt,

    Most of us didn’t grow up going to Boy Scout meetings, and no where in the United States are there communities filled with madrassas. Honolulu in particular (my birthplace) is not filled with madrassas: I’ll guarantee there are more Rotary Clubs than madrassas in Honolulu.

    Slightly more than half of our population lack the requisite equipment to go to Boy Scout meetings: of those who have the requisite equipment not more than 1/3 or so belonged to the Boy Scouts.

    I don’t see what this set of canards gains Huckleberry even with the Teahadists.

  7. Feh, you’re analyzing the abilities of the the standing armies to fight and win the battles of the last war.

    The GOP’s key skill is in picking wedge issues with sufficient _immediate_ irrational emotional appeal to the voters of the 40th to 60th intelligence percentiles that they abandon, for a time, any rational concerns and vote out of fear. Huck and any portions of the GOP he’s cooperating with know these are low stakes times for 2012 candidates. Anything he says now will be forgotten, or easily spun, when the stakes pick up later in the game. If he’s even bothered to consider his comments as anything beyond mere base maintenance he’s doing test marketing. I would expect to see any GOP’er with serious strategic thoughts about the Presidency in 2010 to be gently exploring any number of lines and angles to gauge base, zoned out middle, and disenchanted middle, and CW media mood and receptiveness.

  8. Can’t believe you guys on the left waste even your time on such trivia. Huckabee is not a serious candidate, any more than Palin or Kucinich (on the Dem side) or any other fringe character. The candidate in “12 is likely to be someone not even on your radar screen yet, though today’s financial requirements mean serious candidates will have to come out of the woodwork soon. Likely to be a current or former GOP governor. Possibilities include Christie, Pawlenty, Daniels, but there are others. Most are hanging back to see what the economy does and what happens to Obama’s popularity numbers in the next few months. They are determining whether it makes more sense to target 2012 or 2016. If it starts to look like Obama will get a second term, the party is likely to default to Romney, who may not believe he can wait until 2016.

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