"Now I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE,” said Huckabee. “I’m pretty sure that I would have found my feminine side and said, ‘Coach, I think I'd rather shower with the girls today.’ You’re laughing because it sounds so ridiculous doesn’t it?"
For most people, Huckabee’s comments seem a little out of date, perhaps even bigoted. This is a country in which a gold-medal-winning Olympian and one-time mascot of American masculinity just revealed that he is a transgender Republican, and then posed for the cover of Vanity Fair to share a new name, Caitlyn Jenner, along with a new gender identity and personal story.
Huckabee's February comments might have gone over quite well back in 2004, when so-called “values voters” dominated most of the waking hours and dreams of political operatives and candidates alike. In 2004, a mostly-Republican contingent of lawmakers pushed constitutional bans on gay marriage onto state ballots, which the Karl Rove-led George W. Bush campaign ably leveraged to draw conservative voters to the polls. While casting a vote against gay marriage, Republicans could also cast a vote for Bush. And despite some post-election equivocation about the role that the gay marriage measures played in helping Bush return to the White House, Rove was utterly plain about the role that “moral values” played in the 2004 election.
Rove told the New York Times:
"I do think it was part and parcel of a broader fabric where this year moral values ranked higher than they traditionally do," he said, adding: "I think people would be well advised to pay attention to what the American people are saying. ... You're starting to see some growth of the Republican Party in places where you might not think there was a chance for growth."
And “moral values” did, in fact, rank among the top concerns and vote motivators in the 2004 contest.
But this is 2015, where what precisely the list of moral values should contain has, for much of the country, shifted. Somewhere around 2011, the share of American voters who believe that government should “promote traditional values" slipped below the portion who think the state should not back any particular set of values. A December CNN/ORC International poll found that same split not only remains, but has grown.
And that's to say nothing of the huge shift leftward on issues like gay marriage and marijuana. A recent Gallup poll shows the number of Americans who consider themselves socially liberal just hit a new high.
So Huckabee’s on-stage befuddlement at that Christian broadcaster’s gathering back in February – genuine or feigned – probably can't be described as an effort geared toward the general election.
Still, an audience for Huckabee’s version of traditional moral values does exist. And a lot of it lives in Iowa, a state Huckabee won in 2008. After Huckabee made some similarly questionable comments accusing Beyonce essentially of allowing Jay-Z to pimp her out, a poll showed about four in 10 likely Iowa caucus-goers were on the same page -- even as the state as a whole clearly wasn't.
This is increasingly part-and-parcel to Huckabee's appeals to social conservatives. Let us not forget that special moment in 2014 when Huckabee described the Affordable Care Act’s birth control coverage mandate as “Uncle Sugar,” a demeaning government effort to manage American womanhood’s unwieldy libido.
It’s the kind of aw-shucks, flyover-country-versus-the freaky-coasts politics that a former Fix-er pointed out back in January. That dynamic amounted to central theme in Huckabee’s book, and it seems to be a real part of Huckabee’s 2016 GOP primary campaign strategy.
Even if other candidates are backing out of the Iowa straw poll, or seem poised to do so, Huckabee appears to be going all-in. He wants the state to be as important as possible, for obvious reasons.
What's most puzzling about all of this is that Huckabee has huge potential as a politician. But he always seems to be fighting yesterday's battles and aiming for an ever-shrinking constituency. Maybe that's where his heart is, but it's not helping his party.