Principles Amid the GOP Pack
If the Republican Party really wanted to hold on to the White House in 2009, it's pretty clear what it would do. It would grit its teeth, swallow its doubts and nominate a ticket of John McCain for president and Mike Huckabee for vice president -- and president-in-waiting.
Those two are far from front-runners. They trail Mitt Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire and lag behind Rudy Giuliani in national surveys of Republican voters. But, in a series of debates, including last week's CNN-YouTube extravaganza, McCain and Huckabee have been notable for their clarity, character and, yes, simple humanity.
From everything I have heard on the campaign trail, it's obvious that they are the pair who have earned the widest respect among the eight Republican candidates themselves. McCain is the eldest and the most honored, not only for what he endured as a Vietnam prisoner of war but as a principled battler for what he considers essential on Iraq and other national security issues.
Huckabee, who previously was known only to those of us who cover state government and governors, has been the surprise discovery of the campaign season. His combination of religious principle, good humor, tolerance and clear passion on education and health care complements McCain's muscular foreign policy and aversion to wasteful domestic spending.
The two of them seem often to be operating on a different -- and higher -- plane than the quarrelsome Giuliani and Romney, whose mutual contempt is as palpable as it is persuasive.
Fred Thompson appears perpetually grumpy -- a presence hard to imagine inhabiting the Oval Office. The three House members -- Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter -- are exercising their lungs but running for exercise, happy to be part of the proceedings but with no hope of being nominated.
What sets McCain and Huckabee apart is most evident in the way they treat the contentious issue of illegal immigration. Both of them have been burned by it -- Huckabee in a losing battle with his legislature over tuition breaks for children of illegal immigrants; McCain for his sponsorship of President Bush's comprehensive immigration reform. Both now acknowledge -- as everyone must -- that the failure of the federal government to secure the southern border has produced broad public outrage.
But, unlike the others, who seem to take their rhetorical cues from the rabidly anti-immigrant Tancredo, Huckabee and McCain always remember that those who struggle to reach the United States across the deserts or rivers of the Southwest are human beings drawn here by the promise of better lives for their families.
After outlining the failed Senate effort to pass a bill that included a temporary guest worker program and a pathway to earned citizenship for the illegal immigrants already living here, McCain said, "What we've learned is that the American people want the borders enforced. We must . . . secure the borders first. But then . . . we need to sit down as Americans and recognize these are God's children as well, and they need some protections under the law and they need some of our love and compassion." That answer was interrupted by applause.
Huckabee was asked to defend a bill he sponsored that the questioner said "gave illegal aliens a discount for college in Arkansas by allowing them to pay lower in-state tuition rates."
The former governor corrected him. The bill, he said, "would have allowed those children who had been in our schools their entire school life the opportunity to have the same scholarship that their peers had, who had also gone to high school with them and sat in the same classrooms. . . . It wasn't about out-of-state tuition."
Romney was not appeased. He said Huckabee sounded like a Massachusetts liberal, giving the taxpayers' money to people who are here illegally.
To which Huckabee replied: "In all due respect, we're a better country than to punish children for what their parents did. We're a better country than that." He, too, was applauded.
I think we are that better country. And I hope the Republicans agree.