Unlike New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee did not use his speech at the Republican National Convention to unofficially announce his candidacy for 2020 (or even 2016). The one-time governor of Arkansas did not wait sixteen minutes to invoke Mitt Romney’s name (as did Christie) or simply mention it as a kind of afterthought (as did Santorum)
Instead, Huckabee delivered a more-or-less textbook rally-‘round-the-nominee-on-the-penultimate-night-of-the-convention address . In so doing, he cleverly and gracefully smoothed over some past turbulence.
After all, this was the same friend of Chuck Norris who just a few years ago lit Romney up as “looking like the guy who just laid you off.” More darkly, in 2008, he dabbled in a little Mormon baiting as when he asked a New York Times reporter if “Jesus and the devil were brothers” in LDS theology; Huckabee later apologized.
Now, the national Huckabee brand is predicated on two central virtues: authenticity and likeability. Speak off the record to journalists who have interviewed him, especially the liberal ones, and they swoon over the guy. Huckabee clearly understood how inauthentic it might sound for him to suddenly praise a man whom he once likened to a corporate suit slapping you with a pink slip.
To solve that problem he cleverly praised Romney via triangulation. He described the latter and himself as “mutual opponents” of the president. “To those who question how once rivals can now be united,” Huckabee explained, “it’s simple - we have Barack Obama to thank.”
With his authenticity and likeability intact, Huckabee proceeded to bang out a few classic GOP faith and values talking points. As I noted elsewhere, Republicans believe the “religious freedom” issue is a winner for them, especially with Catholics. Thus Huckabee intoned: “The attack on my Catholic brothers and sisters is an attack on me.”
No religious politicking from the Republican side would be complete without a theologically-tinged attack on the federal government. The governor promptly accused President Obama of telling “people of faith that they have to bow their knee to the god of government.” About an hour later, Paul Ryan made the same argument as he thundered: “Our rights come from nature and God, not government.”
Huckabee, incidentally, went down this path before—and with disastrous results. Back in 2008, he argued the Constitution should be amended to “God’s standards”—a bit of sermonizing that mired him in controversy and slowed down his primary push.
Perhaps the only false note in what was otherwise a breezy, workmanlike oration was Huckabee’s reference to the president as a “self-professed evangelical”:
Of the four people on the two tickets, the only self-professed evangelical is Barack Obama, and he supports changing the definition of marriage, believes that human life is disposable and expendable at any time in the womb or even beyond the womb, and tells people of faith that they must bow their knees to the god of government and violate their faith and conscience in order to comply with what he calls health care
Referring to Obama as evangelical is a very, very problematic claim. It is certainly at odds with the way Obama’s faith and modern evangelicalism are understood by most analysts (this article sheds some light on this issue).
Basically, the evangelicals who Huckabee represents are going to do one of two things on Election Day. Most will pull the lever for Romney. A very small minority will not vote at all because of their theological opposition to Mormonism (Here Huckabee was spot on when he remarked: “I care far less as to where Mitt Romney takes his family to church than I do about where he takes this country”).What I mean to say is that there was no need for Huckabee to turn his constituents away from “fellow” evangelical Obama in the first place—they just don’t see the president as a brother in Christ.
Unless he wanted to add “puzzling misdirection” to his brand, I am at a loss to explain why Huckabee saw fit to raise this point in an effective, albeit unambitious, oration.
Jacques Berlinerblau is associate professor and director of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. His next book “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom” will be released in September. Follow him on Twitter @Berlinerblau .