Wednesday, February 06, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Huck seeks spot on ticket

His presidential ambitions if not his campaign terminated by the voters on Super Tuesday’s national primary, Mike Huckabee today begins a more calculating phase of his quest for national power, the Republican nomination for vice president. Some of his closest supporters thought it was his ambition all along.

Now he is positioned better than he must have ever hoped. Although he slipped out of everyone’s sights as a presidential candidate yesterday even while piling up a sizable number of delegates, he has served as a guarantor for Sen. John McCain, who now has a huge lead in the race for nominating delegates. Huckabee can continue to serve McCain’s ends by remaining in the race for another month or so, at least through the big Texas primary on March 4, and splitting the conservative and evangelical votes with Mitt Romney.

The strategy functioned perfectly Tuesday when McCain switched his supporters to Huckabee at the West Virginia state convention, blocking a victory for Romney in that small evangelical constituency. Huckabee walked away with all the state’s 18 delegates, although he trailed Romney in actual support. He also walked away with John McCain’s gratitude.

If gratitude determines McCain’s choice of a running mate, assuming he goes on to win the nomination, then Mike Huckabee will have to be it. McCain has some important endorsements among the dropouts — notably Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson, both old friends — but he really owes them little. Their endorsements, like all such endorsements, matter little except for the sense of momentum. Voters care little about guidance from other politicians. They will make up their own minds, thank you.

But McCain will owe Mike Huckabee a considerable debt for splitting the conservative base of the party and staying beyond his own viability to achieve that objective. Huckabee has refused to criticize McCain throughout the long campaign and occasionally he has offered lavish encomiums to the old POW, even when Chuck Norris, Huckabee’s celebrity sidekick, said McCain at 71 was too old to be president.

Many noted that Huckabee was equally charitable to the other moderate, Giuliani, the early front-runner, although their ideas about almost everything could hardly be more divergent. But our man never shrank from mixing it up with the rock-solid conservative candidates — Thompson, Sam Brownback, Romney and the Texas libertarian Ron Paul.

Political debt, however, is never a sound premise for choosing a running mate. You want someone who will help you win, or at least not lose, and someone who, if you win, will be a wise and loyal counsel and an asset in the domestic and global councils where vice presidents are often consigned. Mike Huckabee has not engendered that kind of confidence since his dramatic victory in the Iowa straw poll in August catapulted him to the top rank of candidates.

Yes, he is strong where McCain is weak. Huckabee speaks effortlessly with grace and occasional eloquence, but in a vice presidential candidate that might only serve to emphasize the struggles of the main candidate, who seems earnest but lost without a script. The governor has not been able to expand his vote-getting power beyond conservative evangelicals, and that 15 percent or so of the American electorate will be solidly with the Republican in November with or without Huckabee.

The Baptist preacher also has made a grievous miscalculation in wrapping himself so unctuously in his pastoral garments and casting himself as God’s anointed candidate for president. It has brought him rapturous followers, but most Americans, including those of powerful faith, do not want church and state so closely entwined. He has said too many things that will bring embarrassment to a ticket that must depend upon wide acceptance. He believes that the literal account of creation from Genesis should be taught in the biology classes in every school in America, alongside scientific theories of the evolution of species.

The courts have said over and over that the Constitution absolutely forbids any specific religious instruction in the public schools, but the vice president thinks the courts ought to be defied? None of the major candidates of either party would give voice to such educational heresy. Given his vengeful religious pronouncements and such notions as creationism, to what countries could Vice President Huckabee be dispatched with confidence to conduct sensitive diplomacy for the United States?

We don’t think Huckabee’s real views about the role of government or the proper relationship between the church and state are really far outside the mainstream — he says, for example, that evolution may well be the process that God used for developing species over eons of time and that it didn’t happen in seven days as the Bible recounts — but his clever employment of churches for political fund-raising and his invocation of God as the motivator of his candidacy give people legitimate cause to wonder. Does he want us to be a theocracy? He badly overplayed his advantage among fundamentalist voters. He needed to be inclusive.

In the month remaining, Huckabee needs to unfold those tightly wrapped clerical robes and demonstrate somehow that his remarkable political gifts can be employed for the perfection of this diverse and multicultural democracy. We believe in miracles, too.