Homespun Meets Hard-Line

Mike Huckabee campaigning in Des Moines.
Mike Huckabee campaigning in Des Moines. (By Yana Paskova -- Getty Images)
By Michael Gerson
Friday, December 14, 2007

DES MOINES -- There is a frigid grandeur to the Midwest in winter -- the dark stubble in snow-layered cornfields, chunks of ice bobbing down the Missouri River, stranded cars decorating the roadside.

I came to Iowa to see a series of rallies by the surging Mike Huckabee -- all of which were canceled by a nine-state ice storm. The candidate chose to occupy his snow day with a moral blunder of the first order -- accepting the endorsement of Jim Gilchrist, the founder of an anti-immigrant group called the Minuteman Project.

I am predisposed to like Mike Huckabee for his commitment to economic mobility, his firm but nonjudgmental social conservatism and his Christian concern for the poor. But Huckabee's embrace of Gilchrist and his recent shifts on immigration policy undermine the core of his appeal: authenticity. From the G-rated, family-values candidate, this is the kind of politics that should be covered with brown paper, kept under the counter and hidden from children.

Gilchrist is not just another voice on immigration. He is one of the most divisive figures in the most divisive debate in American politics. In 2006, responding to pro-immigration demonstrations, he told the Orange County Register, "I'm not going to promote insurrection, but if it happens, it will be on the conscience of the members of Congress who are doing this. I will not promote violence in resolving this, but I will not stop others who might pursue that." Note the oily formulation -- not promoting, but also not criticizing, the resort to political violence. "I'm willing to see my country go into battle if necessary," he added, "for our sovereignty and to be governed by rule of law."

Gilchrist has called for the impeachment of President Bush over the issue of border enforcement. He has made noises about running for president as a third-party candidate because of his disdain for Republicans.

This is an odd choice of company for a candidate who promotes a conservatism without anger.

At the endorsement in Council Bluffs, Gilchrist referred to the "illegal alien invasion" -- which sounds less like it originates from Mexico than from Mars. Contrast this with Huckabee speaking in Little Rock at a meeting of Hispanic civil rights leaders two years ago: "I would hope that no matter who we are, or where we are from, that America should always be a place that opens its spirit to people who come because they want the best for their families." And Huckabee has accompanied his choice of new friends with an immigration plan that would require 12 million illegal immigrants to return home before applying for permanent status -- a completely unrealistic approach borrowed from anti-immigration activists.

Huckabee's campaign regards this evolution as immunization against Mitt Romney's immigration attack ads -- and it may work in the short run. But a political shift this transparent raises questions about the quality and seriousness of Huckabee's campaign. Did someone vet Gilchrist's past statements? Did anyone consider the possibility that this toxic political symbolism might sabotage future appeals to Hispanic voters?

Candidates, of course, must win caucuses and primaries before they have the chance to be principled in general elections. Compromise is inevitable. But sometimes political maneuvers are so sudden and reckless they raise deeper questions. Huckabee's main appeal has been his homespun decency. But his behavior on immigration has been a kind of politics-as-usual so blatant it is actually unusual. Huckabee is managing to compromise his most distinctive virtue at the very moment the attention of the public is focused on his candidacy. In politics, a candidate can bend over backward so far that his spine snaps.

These errors don't have to be fatal for Huckabee, who has a compelling message and personality. His populist disdain for the elites of Wall Street and the Republican establishment has earned him increasing opposition, but it might also allow him to position Republicans as the party of change in an election that will reward a message of change.

But it is worth recalling a quote from Thomas More in "A Man for All Seasons." More's protege, Richard Rich, has compromised his convictions to be appointed attorney general for Wales. "For Wales?" asks More. "Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. . . . But for Wales?"

The question now comes to Mike Huckabee, who knows the biblical reference: "For Iowa?"

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