Thursday, October 25, 2007

GAIL COLLINS: Who Doesn’t ♥ Huckabee?


Chuck Norris has spoken.

I know many of you were waiting to hear who the star of “Walker, Texas Ranger” has decided to endorse in the presidential race. Well, the winner is ... Mike Huckabee.

“It’s time to quit choosing our leaders based solely upon charisma or one strong suite,” said Norris, in a statement that was rich in historical references, if a little weak on copy editing.

Norris has a side career as a columnist for a conservative news Web site, so perhaps his opinion carries more weight than your average action star who has not yet been elected to public office. (It would help, though, if the “Current Events” section of the Chuck Norris home page was not devoted to the schedule for the World Combat League.) But the question we want to consider today is why he is virtually the only prominent name backing Huckabee, who is this season’s likable presidential candidate. This is the venerable, if not particularly rewarding role once held by Morris Udall and John McCain2000, and it involves having reporters appreciate you much more than the politicians and donors do.

Like Bill Clinton, Huckabee was born in a town called Hope and became a pretty good governor of a state that doesn’t make it all that easy. (Plus, you have to love the fact that he lived for a while in a mobile home on the Arkansas Statehouse grounds.) He’s extremely inclusive, defending minorities who are illegal immigrants as well as the ones registered to vote. He can be both funny and convincing on the stump.

On the downside, I think he’d be a terrible president. He doesn’t know beans about foreign affairs, he wants to replace the income tax with a national sales tax, and his positions on social issues are far to the right of the general populace. But why aren’t the social conservatives rallying around this guy? Unlike any of the major candidates, he’s still on his first wife and first position on abortion. Once we start getting into the inevitable personal stories of redemption, Americans would have a much better time listening to Huckabee tell how he lost 110 pounds than sitting through Rudy’s 9/11 story again or looking at pictures of Mitt’s 10 grandchildren.

Yet the leaders of the Values Voters keep waiting for one of the top-tier candidates to change — a strategy that any woman who’s had an unsatisfactory boyfriend could warn them is never going to pan out. They pace around muttering that maybe Fred Thompson will start acting more ... alive, or that Mitt Romney will stop being a Mormon. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, seems to think Rudy Giuliani has come around on gay marriage. (Perkins should talk to Rudy’s gay former roommate Howard Koeppel about the time the then-mayor promised to marry Koeppel and his partner as soon as the laws change.)

Huckabee’s problems say more about the leaders of the religious right than about him. They’re united mainly by their hatred of abortion and gay marriage, and a desire to win. Considerations like who has the most Christian attitudes toward illegal immigrants don’t register. And the fact that as governor Huckabee spent a lot of time trying to spend money on the needy doesn’t go over all that well with the ones who believe that God’s top priority is eliminating the estate tax.

Lately, anti-Huckabee conservatives have been suggesting he’s soft on crime. The story involves an Arkansas man, Wayne DuMond, who was accused of kidnapping and raping a high school cheerleader in 1985. While he was free awaiting trial, masked men broke into his home, beat and castrated him. His testicles wound up in a jar of formaldehyde, on display on the desk of the local sheriff. At the trial, he was sentenced to life plus 20 years. When Huckabee became governor, DuMond was still in an apparently hopeless situation, though theoretically eligible for parole. Huckabee championed his cause, and wrote him a congratulatory letter when he was finally released in 1999. Then in 2000 DuMond moved to Kansas City, where he sexually assaulted and murdered a woman who lived near his home.

“There’s nothing you can say, but my gosh, it’s the thing you pray never happens,” the clearly tortured Huckabee recently told The National Review. “And it did.” If by some miracle he became the presidential nominee, there would obviously be many opportunities to point out that Michael Dukakis never sent a letter to Willie Horton celebrating his furlough.

Why do the leaders of the religious right keep sidling away from a Baptist minister whose greatest political sin seems to have been showing compassion to a prisoner who appeared to deserve it? Why can’t they rally around the candidate who pushed for more government spending to promote poor children’s health and education, and reminded his conservative critics that when they talk about being pro-life, “life doesn’t begin at conception and end at birth?”

I think we have answered the question.

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