Last nite, something odd happened at a party in San Francisco. A bunch of us middle-aged gay men were hanging out on the verandah, smoking and slurping up second-hand smoke while we discussed the relative merits of the three Democratic front-runners. My friend from Texas (a longtime Democratic activist who was at the Ambassador Hotel when Robert Kennedy was shot) was making the case for Barack Obama: change; turn the page from the Clinton Wars; bring a new generation of committed, activist voters into the Democratic Party and reward their participation with a nominee closer to their age, lifestory, and views. I was making the John Edwards case, when another person joined us and sat down.
It was the point early in the party when you’re still sober enough to remember to include newly arrived people in the conversation, so I turned to the newcomer and said, "We’re discussing the vast array of presidential candidates. Have you a preference?"
The gentleman adjusted his rabbit-fur jacket collar, crossed his legs dramatically, and declaimed: "Well, if I were forced to cast a ballot today, I am quite certain I should vote for… Mike Huckabee." My fiance stirred quietly at my side, in the universally-recognized-by-couples signal for: We are at a party, damnit, not having some blog conversation, so behave yourself, please.
But I had to know — here was the phenomenon staring me in the face. The Huckabee voter is elusive in San Francisco. That this supporter was also wearing a rabbit-fur pillbox hat and Uggs could not dissuade my natural curiosity: What makes people support Mike Huckabee? Specifically, what could possibly lead an African-American homosexual who lives in Pacific Heights and Brussels to support Mike Hucklebee? I decided to take the plunge into an already rather extended conversational pause. Did I mention that our little group on the verandah had nervously dismissed Huckster as a joke just moments earlier due to his plans to quarantine at least half of us for HIV infection?
"Wow," I said calmly. "What makes you like Mike?" And what I learned is trouble for any Democrat who may oppose Mike Huckabee in the general election.
"Well, first of all, he’s a preacher, and my momma taught me to always respect the preacher. The preacher is a very respected man in the community I was reared in, and I think it would be wonderful to have a preacher in the White House." This startled me, since I would not think "preacher-trustworthiness" crosses cultural and racial divides in America. Apparently, it does.
"But," I replied, "he’s not a preacher any more. He’s a politician now. Does that make you support him any less?"
"Oh, no, Mike Huckabee was called to politics by the Lord. He didn’t want to go into politics, and he fought going into politics, since it’s such a dirty and nasty business. But he was called, just like he was called to the preacherhood, and a good man cannot ignore a call from the Lord." This was disturbing, as I think eight years of a president who thinks he’s got a hotline to A Higher Father is quite enough. I realized, though, that this inoculated Huckster from my claim he’s now a politican: he’s a politican, but he can’t help it, it’s God’s Will. And God’s Will seems particularly resonant with people of Faith.
"Okay, then!" I said, as I noticed some more stirring to my immediate right, and corrected my tone to one of curious inquiry rather than interrogation. "What else besides being a preacher do you find attractive about him?" Here, I hoped, we might pin down some Views on Issues, elusive though they’d been in the discussion so far. And I was not disappointed.
"Well, you always know what he stands for. Regardless of the issue, he decides what he believes and he sticks to it. And he stands for what he believes in. And you always know what that is. He is very sure of himself, and I find that comforting in this world." This went on, with little specificity, for some time, until a kind-hearted soul rescued our conversation.
What I learned, though, is important to our eventual nominee. There are important lessons for our nominee (and the consulting class s/he will inevitably be surrounded with) especially if s/he’s facing Huckabee in the general election. I don’t want to extrapolate and speculate too much based on one conversation with one member of a unique (did I mention the rabbit-fur pillbox hat?) demographic, but several things struck me.
1. People retain connections to their roots, and they express these connections in the voting booth in ways unimaginable to the Mark Penns of this world. While most demographers would slip my co-conversationalist into tidy marketing slots based upon the obvious (rabbit-fur pillbox hat, expressive and effeminate gay mannerisms, two homes) there are also, underneath those easy pigeonholes, ways for candidates to reach people that have more to do with what their momma told them growing up. And almost everyone had a momma who told us something. Some of us, apparently, had mommas who taught us to always respect the preacherman. And that preacherman-respect carries into support for Huckabee in ways we might not expect, from voters we might not plan on losing. Voters we don’t plan on losing are voters we forget to appeal to in the general election. Not all of them wear rabbit-fur pillbox hats. Almost all of them had mommas who taught them something — and that something might advantage our opposition in ways we simply don’t expect.
2. People hear things about candidates through their own networks, and these networks run alongside and, sometimes, completely apart from both the Traditional and New Media information superhighways. We’re all familiar — and now newly re-acquainted, thanks so much, Mrs Howell! — with the lies and idiocy being peddled about Barack Obama, Islam, and the madrassa. We’ve all heard the RightWing’s craziness about Hillary’s crush on her body-lady. Everyone’s heard Ann Coulter’s slurs on John Edwards. But — and I write as someone who tries very hard to keep up on the news about my own team’s PrezCandis and those of the GOP — this "called by the Lord into politics" meme about Huckabee is a new one to me. It casts Mike as one who resisted the temptation to leave his religious calling, until he realized he had another calling from His Higher Father. Here we have a candidate who never sought the dirty, nasty political battleground.
Doesn’t that lay down a tidy contrast between The New Man from Hope and, oh, say, The Lady Who Married The First Fellow From Hope and, then, political to the core, planned their conquest of America via our politics over the next thirty years? And this story, about which my co-conversationalist was quite sure and very willing to expound on at great length, is something I had never heard. Oh, sure, I’ve heard that Mike told Jerry Falwell that if his current campaign takes off, "it’ll be a God thing." But I had not heard that his entire political career was due to having been called by God. Which means, of course, that there’s an information stream about Mike Huckabee that’s traveling routes we in the blogosphere are unaware of — routes that might just have a lot to do with the momma who taught respect for the preacherman.
3. "Standing for something" doesn’t mean a Huckabee voter needs to know what the candidate stands for, or agree with the candidate if s/he does know. "Standing up for what he believes in" is its own value, one that stands singularly in the absence of knowing any of the candidate’s specific views. Knowing the candidate’s particular views — and I pressed a little, in a pleasant tone as one who really wanted to know — is unimportant to holding high the value of "standing for something." To me, this has manifested itself in our Current Occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as willful and intransigent stubbornness, but to some voters (okay, in this case one, but I’ll bet there are others, don’t you suppose?) the American Value of stick-to-it-iveness reigns high.
We saw this, of course, in 2004, when flip-flopping became the charge du jour. I wonder, though, if Americans are ready for a president to whose lips easily come the phrase, "I was wrong." Sure, I like the retrospective and considerative aspect of mentality it illuminates. I want a thinking person in the White House. But, I wonder, would America rather have someone who knows what s/he knows, stands for what s/he believes, and sticks to his/her guns? People who heard Mike Huckabee this morning say he wouldn’t recant his statement on quarantining AIDS patients — in 1992! — probably said, "Good for him, don’t go back on your word!" when clearly the correct, thinking-person’s response was "I was wrong then, and I don’t believe that now."
That’s what scares me about going up against Mike Huckabee in the general election.
Sure, Rudi Giuliani is the President I most fear of the GOP candidates. But, based on last night’s conversation, Mike Huckabee is the candidate I most fear of the GOP candidates. I learned he has a crossover, underhanded, apolitical, stubborn, faith-based, unreal appeal unlike, perhaps, any of our Democratic candidates. And I’m scared of him. Thanks to the gentleman in the rabbit-fur pillbox hat.