Evangelicals want to railroad the GOP?

RailroadtracksIt's no secret that evangelical Protestants who are Republicans, or at least those who plan to attend the Iowa caucus next month, support Mike Huckabee. But why do they back him? Reporters should find out. The news could have big implications. It seems that some "values voters" are still out there and may have selected their candidate.

Jon Cohen and Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post wrote a helpful story about the extent of evangelical support for the former Arkansas governor:

His support is still concentrated among Christian conservatives -- 62 percent are evangelical Protestants, 76 percent attend church at least weekly and 88 percent are conservative -- but he is doing somewhat better among more moderate Republicans. Moreover, a month ago, Huckabee was regarded as a single-issue candidate, scoring well as the best able to handle social issues but lagging on other top concerns, including immigration.

Now, as many voters call Huckabee the candidate best able to deal with immigration, taxes, the Iraq war and terrorism as those who favor Romney. ...

Among those who highlight abortion or moral and family values as one of their top two voting issues, Huckabee has a commanding 43-point lead over Romney. Among those citing immigration, 32 percent support Romney and 24 percent back Huckabee, signaling a potential opening for the former Massachusetts governor in the final stretch.

The reader is left to assume that evangelicals have coalesced behind Huckabee because of his conservative stands on abortion and homosexuality. But the story never says whether there are other reasons.

Here's my modest suggestion: Reporters should probe deeper into the nature of evangelicals' support for Huckabee. Besides his personality and conservative stands on cultural issues, what do they like about him? What do they think of his economic populist rhetoric on the campaign trail and record as governor of Arkansas? Do they view him as a president who would address issues such as global warming, Darfur, and health care?

Answers to those questions could lead to an even bigger story: whether evangelicals do, in fact, wish to control the Republican party machinery. Huckabee has suggested that they do. Here is what he told David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, as quoted in The Politico:

There is a level of elitism that has existed, the chattering class if you will who lives in that corridor between Washington and Wall Street and they sort of live in their protected world, and frankly for a number of years many of them thought of people like me -- whether it was because we were evangelicals or because maybe we were out from the middle of America. They were polite to us. They were more than happy for us to come to the rallies and stand in lines for hours to cheer on the candidates, appreciated us putting up the yard signs, going out and putting out the cards on peoples doors and making phone calls to the phone banks and -- really appreciated all of our votes. But when they got elected, behind closed doors, they would laugh at us and speak with scorn and derision that we were, as one article I think once said "the easily led." So there's been almost this sort of, it's okay if you guys get a seat on the bus, but don't ever think about telling us where the bus is going to go.

Except for E.J. Dionne Jr., reporters and commentators have yet to tease out the implications of Huckabee's comments, but they should.

Like Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Huckabee wants to change the leadership of his party. Instead of the economic and foreign policy conservatives calling the shots, evangelicals would rule. (McCarthy sought to replace the Catholic bosses, whom he called "old buffaloes," with Northern intellectuals and New Politics activists.)

That's why it's important to know the extent to which evangelicals support Huckabee. Are they with him all the way or just on hot-button cultural issues? Consider, for example, this Robert Novak column on Huckabee's standing among his own flock -- the Southern Baptists. Is Novak right or wrong on this one?

Answering these kinds of questions would help us know whether evangelicals seek to drive the Republican bus or are content to sit in the back.

The bottom line: the 30-year relationship between evangelicals and the Republican Party is changing. This is a big story waiting to be told. But first, reporters need to ask more questions.

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