As you may have noticed by now, conservative commentators don’t care much for Mike Huckabee. Rush Limbaugh says the former Arkansas governor is “not a conservative.” Peggy Noonan considers Huckabee “not-reasonable.” George Will sees Huckabee not as the antichrist but the anti-Madison, which one gathers is almost as bad, and compares him unfavorably to Barack Obama.
What do all these high-profile conservatives have against Huckabee? Just his economic record, his philosophy of government, his approach to foreign policy, and his Arkansas clemencies, among other complaints.
Iowa’s Republican caucus-goers were nevertheless unmoved by all this bad conservative press. Huckabeee handily beat Mitt Romney, the candidate who had been endorsed by National Review, the head of the American Conservative Union, and New Right founding father Paul Weyrich.
Now, if the polls are to be believed, New Hampshire’s Republican primary may be won by a candidate movement conservatives don’t like much better. Over the last eight years, John McCain has been at odds with the right side of his party on the Bush tax cuts, campaign finance reform, immigration, the Gang of 14, environmental regulations, embryonic stem-cell research, the federal marriage amendment, and the treatment of terror detainees. Even this list understates the anger some conservatives feel toward McCain, whom they view as a Strange New Respect Republican.
Given the McCain surge and the Huckaboom, along the with the possibility that an early-state muddle will end up vindicating Rudy Giuliani’s February 5th strategy, there is a growing likelihood that the eventual Republican nominee will be someone vast swathes of the conservative movement won’t like. Such a development would be problematic for all sorts of reasons — it would make the 2008 election that much harder for the GOP, jeopardize the already shaky alliance between economic and social conservatives, prolong the existence of big government conservatism, and otherwise make it more difficult for the country to be well governed.
BUT THERE WOULD BE one silver lining. The conservative movement has suffered in recent years from an over-identification with the Bush administration and the anemic congressional Republicans. The right is simply too accustomed to criticizing McCain and Huckabee to be plausibly accused of carrying water for them. And the ongoing debate over the direction of the GOP makes conservatives less likely to change their tune if Huckabee or McCain were elected.
Conservatives have traditionally related to Republican presidents in one of two ways. When Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush were in the White House, conservatives were cordial but kept them at arm’s length. The right supported these presidents’ more conservative initiatives and defended them from liberal attack, but was just as likely to pounce at the first sign of presidential wishy-washiness — indeed, Nixon, Ford, and Bush 41 all faced significant conservative opposition when they sought the GOP nomination as incumbent presidents. At the beginning of his administration, National Review promised Bush 41 that the magazine’s editors would be “fair-weather critics and foul-weather friends.”
Under Ronald Reagan and, for most of his presidency, George W. Bush, conservatives actively identified with the president. He was One of Us. That doesn’t mean the right never quarreled with these commanders in chief, as the phrase “Let Reagan Be Reagan” and the name Harriet Miers remind us. But the conservative movement felt more than an affinity for a few Reagan or Bush 43 policies — it felt a stake in the outcome of both administrations. Support for a Republican primary opponent in 1984 or 2004 by any influential conservative would have been almost unthinkable.
Reagan was present at the creation, a movement favorite since the Goldwater campaign. The right was initially cooler to George W. Bush, regarding him as conservative but not a conservative. Most conservatives sided with him against John McCain during the 2000 primaries, with some notable exceptions, but relatively few of them thought he was in Reagan’s league. That changed after 9/11, as Bush the wartime leader bonded with conservatives in a way his father never did and conservative authors produced an outpouring of books praising Bush in terms once reserved for Reagan.
This popularity didn’t prevent conservative criticism of big government Bush initiatives like the Medicare prescription drug benefit or No Child Left Behind, but it probably made the criticism tamer than similar complaints about his father’s wobbliness (it surely contributed to defenses of these programs as part of a new approach to conservative governance). There was a similar effect on the intra-conservative Iraq debate, with both those who were skeptical of the war and those who thought we were invading with too few troops initially quieter than they may have otherwise been.
WITH MANY OF the current crop of Republican presidential aspirants, the Nixon model makes more sense than the Reagan model. They are closer to the right than Hillary Clinton, but not as reliably conservative as Reagan or even the current president. One has a campaign chairman who pronounced the Reagan coalition dead, another thought in 2000 that the GOP base could benefit from a little creative destruction. Conservatives should be creative too.
Declaring independence from such candidates can’t hurt. Does the GOP nominee want to repudiate “greedy” Wall Street tax-cutters? Then return the favor. Is the Republican hopeful treating pro-lifers and gun owners like just another special interest in need of regulation? Then conservatives should treat him like just another politician.
A political alliance isn’t a marriage. You don’t have to take a presidential candidate for better or worse. Only when they’re right.