In the 40 years between 1966 and 2006, the Republican Party rose from a marginalized minority party into a national governing majority. Though the GOP made significant gains among white Catholics, suburban women and other slivers of the population, it was the conversion of white Southerners and the somewhat-overlapping mobilization of evangelicals that propelled what Karl Rove has called the Republicans' "rolling realignment."
For most of the past four decades, however, national Republicans enjoyed the electoral benefits of their Southern, evangelized base without paying much of a political price. Notice, for example, how well the "Southern strategy" - innovated by Barry Goldwater, adopted by Richard Nixon, perfected by Ronald Reagan and inherited by George W. Bush - worked despite the fact that Republicans didn't nominate a Southern presidential or vice presidential candidate until 2000. (The president's father was a transplanted Yankee.)
A party can take its base voters for granted only for so long before there must be an accounting, and that accountability moment seems to have arrived in the past month in the form of Mike Huckabee.
Mr. Huckabee is the political phenom of the 2008 cycle. The former Arkansas governor is surging in the polls, and not only in Iowa - where he now has a considerable lead after polling in the single digits just a few months ago - but nationally as well.
Mr. Bush, of course, is a Southerner and a born-again Christian. What, then, distinguishes Mr. Huckabee from Republican nominees of the past? Plenty, but most significantly this: The new man from Hope is not a product of the GOP's establishment wing.
Mr. Huckabee so delights in this fact that he broadcasts it whenever possible. He has called the anti-tax Club for Growth the "Club for Greed." On illegal immigration, he has defied national party positions. And Mr. Huckabee's frequent stump speech about how the United States must be able to "feed, fuel and fight" for itself includes a call for energy independence that sounds like it was lifted from an Al Gore speech.
In short, he is to the Republicans what Howard Dean was for the Democrats four years ago: the candidate running for his party's nomination by running against his party. This is a potentially unsettling reality for establishment Republicans, who have a long tradition of nominating the next guy in line.
That said, can Mr. Huckabee buck his party and capture the nomination? "For anyone who wonders why this charmer with a perfect record on the right's core social litmus tests has not already wrapped up the Republican nomination, they need look no further than the disgruntled uber-conservatives who are spitting mad that Huckabee has been too nice to poor people and foreigners," writes Sarah Posner in a recent issue of The American Prospect, concluding that the establishment wing will eventually tear him down.
Mr. Huckabee likes to wax metaphorically about how the laws of aerodynamics make it impossible for a bumblebee's body shape to be carried aloft by the wings with which it is equipped. The bumblebee, he says, knows nothing of such laws and flies anyway. The implication is that Mr. Huckabee wasn't supposed to have buzzed along this far, and certainly not all the way to the nomination.
Just as the old, moderate establishment wing lost its handle on the party and could not defuse Mr. Goldwater's 1964 candidacy, Mr. Huckabee's rise suggests that today's Republican establishment could be losing its grip. The Southern preacher wing of the GOP has been paid a lot of lip service lo these past four decades, but a candidate homegrown from the true base of the party with no familial pedigree has never been handed the party reins.
Mike Huckabee, bumblebee, preacher, president wannabe - in whatever form, the ex-governor's candidacy represents the accountability for the Republicans and their evangelized, Southern-fueled rise to power.
Copyright © 2007, The Baltimore Sun