Our preferences are shaped by the media we consume.

The more I read my study material for my financial certifications, the less I find myself noticing the gender inclusive pronouns (which normally evoke irritation). In some ways, it’s inevitable. Put yourself in an environment long enough, and it starts to shape you in ways that you do not realize.

The reluctance of evangelical leaders to endorse Mike Huckabee in light of his recent success has been well documented. It’s pretty clear they were hoping for someone else (presumably Romney or Fred) to win the crowd and make their lives easier. It didn’t happen. And now they face the unenviable choice of choosing whom they presume to be the “pragmatic” candidate–Romney–or choosing the upstart whom their base is dying to see succeed (and make no mistake about the base’s eagerness on this score–Huckabee pulled in probably $80,000 today in online donations).

Why the reticence? It’s clear that religious leaders have drunk deeply at the “unelectable” well (Ross Douthat channels it here). They are interested not only in a candidate who represents their values, but a candidate who can win the primary. And who can blame them? Everyone wants to back a winner.

But this is the delicious irony pro-life leaders have placed themselves in. As some people are starting to recognize, Huckabee is both the principled AND the pragmatic choice for pro-life leaders. If he makes it out of the primaries, he’ll win the general handily.

In a race of Hillary and Huck, it’s obvious who inspires more people and speaks their language more effectively, and whose policies have a broader reach across both aisles. It is what my high school teacher used to call a “duh shot”–so obvious that we didn’t see it until now.

If it were Hillary or Romney, however, Romney’s slick demeanor is going to make it hard for him to reach out to people, and his conversion on pro-life issues (even if comparison) will inevitably draw comparisons to another recent northeast presidential candidate. It’s a comparison–regardless of whether it’s deserved–he’s going to struggle to beat.
Then why aren’t the endorsements from pro-life leaders falling from above, like manna to the hungry pro-life crowd? This is the deep irony of this election cycle. It has exposed the fact that pro-life leaders bow to the narratives of the mass media they claim to despise. And in dismissing Mike Huckabee on grounds of electability,they reveal their powerlessness to the world. If values voters were really powerful, we would ignore electability and elect our own candidate because we can. As Noam Shiber writes,

I’d add that social conservative leaders generally prefer to support mainstream, front-running candidates because mainstream front-runners don’t usually need much help winning elections. And when they do win, they can turn around and claim to have put them over the top. Low risk, high reward, in other words. But more marginal candidates like Huckabee need a lot of help winning, probably significantly more so than the elites can deliver. Worse, if you get behind a Huckabee and he comes up short, it exposes your movement as relatively powerless. And, of course, even if he wins you can’t really take credit. So the crass calculation here is the opposite: high risk, low reward.

Pro-life leaders have a candidate before them who clearly and unambiguously adheres to the values they claim to represent within the party, and who is able to electrify their own constituency in a way they are not. But they have refused to endorse him for fear appearing politically impotent should he lose.

Of course, if they had thrown in with Huckabee six months or a year ago, I wouldn’t be writing this. Huckabee would be a solidly top tier candidate with enough money to dismiss any notions that he can’t compete with the Romneys, Giulianis, or Hillary’s of the world.

But they did not. And it is not yet clear that they will. They may have the political hubris to ignore the clear message at the Washington Briefing and endorse Romney. But they should remember that political pride goeth before the political fall; if nothing else, if they refuse to risk their perceived power over politics, they will will lose the respect and admiration of this member of their constituency.

And I doubt I am alone.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

8 Comments

  1. […] I think Matt Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy Blog (and who I worked with in launching the first God Blog conference at Biola) is producing some great reflective posts recently concerning the presidential candidates.  Read his recent posts addressing John Mark Reynolds persistent argument for Romney, and on the impotence of the Religious Right. […]

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  2. I think you may have overstated your case just a bit here: “If he makes it out of the primaries, he’ll win the general handily.” The narrative is not simply invented by the media but based on two important concerns – a) he could split off the fiscon (perhaps even the hawks) of the republican party and thereby lose the election or b) he might not be able to raise enough money to compete with Hillary. The Democrats have been out-raising cash like made during the primaries even comparing front runners to front runners, let alone comparing front runners to second tier guys like Huck.

    Now its definitely true that Huck will see a huge boost in cash when he actually is the nominee. But if he specifically angers the fiscons, will that cash be anywhere near what it could be for a candidate they liked? After all, these are the money guys in our party.

    However, even considering all that, I think I’m coming around to Huck. If we do believe that values voters are a large margin of the vote and an even larger margin of the donators and volunteers, then we should be able to go with a guy that we want and forget about other people’s notions of electability. I’m not totally there yet, but I am leaning moreso.

    One thing is for sure, the straw poll has put the “religious right” leaders in a real bind. If they do wish to pass on Huck, they are stuck with ignoring what the base has said (or overvaluing the online poll to say that Romney somehow won).

    I think that might be the biggest outcome of the weekend – Mitt had everyone seeming to root for him and he couldn’t manage to get values voters excited. In baseball analogies, he had a mid plate fastball just waiting to be crushed and he weakly grounded out at best.

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  3. Matthew Lee Anderson October 23, 2007 at 9:18 am

    Brant,

    I can’t write long, but for the “overstate the case” charge, see my post responding to JMNR. I’m not sure the “he’ll break the party” line is as obvious as it seems. And if Jonathan Alter is write, I’m not sure it matters.

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  4. Who is more likely to sit on their hands: Fiscons in the case of a Huck nom, or Socons in the case of a Rudy nom? I can see the attractiveness in assuming neither question has to be asked in the case of a Romney nom.

    By the way Matt, I’m curious whether you have any thoughts on the last couple paragraphs of this comment, but I know you’re busy so you may just not have time.

    In any case, congratulations on your self-control in having yet to name any of these posts I Heart Huckabee!

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  5. Matt- my apologies. Through some malfunction of my RSS reader, I had missed the post where you responded to JMR’s argument.

    I’m still a bit on the fence on this, but I’ll say this – Huck was (mostly) an unkown to me before this week, but after seeing him in a long interview with Glenn Beck and reading more about him here and elsewhere he’s jumped from second-tier “also-ran” to probably tied with Romney as my first choice. I think my experience probably mirrors some of the polling momentum he’s seen, so I definitely think he’s on the way overcoming his “electable” hurdle.

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  6. Matthew Lee Anderson October 23, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    Nobody,

    I agree with your assessment about the attractiveness (on that point) of Romney’s nomination. But let’s frame the issue differently: whose more likely to work themselves to death to elect their nominee, Socons in the case of Huck, or Fiscons in the case of Rudy? Socons in the case of Huck, or Socons in the case of Romney? Romney, for all his qualities, is not going to inspire the Socons the way Huck will. It just won’t happen.

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  7. Matthew Lee Anderson October 23, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    Brant,

    No worries. Do a bit more reading on him–I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Reply

  8. […] Think of that storyline:  poor, baptist preacher defeats rich everyone else, and does so in a matter of a few months of spending real money.  That’s unheard of in modern politics.  It is not only a storyline fit for a movie:  it is exactly the sort of storyline Huck needs to start building to win the primaries. Which is why Tony Perkins, James Dobson and other Socon bigwigs who haven’t backed a candidate should pick Huck now.  The media likes Huckabee, and has clearly recognized that something special is going on in the grassroots.  But they won’t give it the legitimacy it deserves until he wins Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, or until the big names get behind him.  If that happens, the storyline begins to write itself and Dobson, Perkins, etc. can take credit for putting him over the top in the primaries.  The angst of Socons has been news enough–the firm resolution of the Socons behind a candidate could generate a frenzy. And then, it’s only a matter of maintaining the momentum and improving the weaknesses in the armor, because as we all know, storylines have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. […]

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