An evangelical cruise reveals a united Republican party, but excessive anti-government rhetoric obstructs its path to the White House
Mike Huckabee is eating a cheeseburger and fries on the Lido Deck of the Sapphire Princess, a luxury cruise ship bound from Seattle to Alaska across the rough waters of the Queen Charlotte Sound. A 40-knot wind blasting down from the north is causing this floating resort to roll to and fro, sending pallid-faced passengers back to their state rooms and depressing the sales of booze, on which the profits of the Princess rest. The ship is massive: one third the weight of the Empire State Building and as long as the Eiffel Tower is high.
Of its 2,600 passengers, 250 have signed up for the Freedom Cruise, a Christian gospel music extravaganza of which Huckabee, the Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas, is the star guest and attraction. Until mid-May, Huckabee, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican candidacy in 2008, was among the front-runners for the party’s presidential nomination in 2012. But then he told the audience of his eponymous Fox News show that: “For me, to do it apart from an inner confidence that I was undertaking it with God’s full blessing is simply unthinkable. All the signs said ‘go,’ but my heart said ‘no.’”
His decision not to run says a lot about the quarrelsome state of the Republican party as it prepares to take on Barack Obama in next year’s presidential election. I have joined the Freedom Cruise in the hope of learning where things stand on the US right and whether they can assemble the coalition needed to defeat the man whose policies they have come to despise.
The route taken by the cruise liner Sapphire Princess, 5th-12th June
Huckabee, who represents a populist strain of southernevangelical politics in the US, has never been palatable to the Washington elite of the party. They fault him for breaking the golden rule of Republicanism by raising taxes as governor of Arkansas, and see him as too extreme on social issues to be acceptable to a national audience. Educated at a Baptist college and seminary, Huckabee began his professional life as a pastor, where he quickly began to use radio and television to spread his message beyond the church walls. His political career began in earnest in the early 1990s, and in 1993 he was elected lieutenant governor of Arkansas. He was elevated to governor in 1996 when the sitting governor, Jim Guy Tucker, resigned over fraud charges, and he later won two full terms. Huckabee first came to national prominence in the early 2000s for an anti-obesity campaign in which he personally lost 110 pounds and ran a marathon. (He published a bestselling diet book, Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork, in 2005).
Eating his lunch on the Sapphire Princess, he makes clear to me that his reasons for bowing out weren’t entirely divine. “I’m not sure a guy like me can win in the atmosphere of the current Republican party.” His explanation goes to the heart of the predicament that will face whoever emerges to challenge Obama. “We’ve become a party of such fractured purity. It’s all or nothing, now or never. It’s not whether the government functions, it’s whether the government is ideologically pure.”
The interior of The Sapphire Princess
The troubles presented by this doctrinaire approach are already bedevilling the Republican primary field. All spring, party leaders have been publicly wringing their hands over the lacklustre group of candidates who have thus far stepped forward. With good reason—a party that has Donald Trump leading its polls, if only for a month before he dropped out of the race, is clearly experiencing an identity crisis. The two leading contenders, Mitt Romney, the Mormon investment banker and former governor of Massachusetts, and Tim Pawlenty, the earnest former governor of Minnesota, are considered dull and, in Romney’s case, shamelessly opportunistic. The rest of the field includes a pizza magnate, Herman Cain; an arch conservative, former senator, Rick Santorum, who has what is euphemistically described as “a Google problem”; and the former Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign has been beset by resignations and acrimony. Most thrilling of all for cable news executives (and the Obama campaign) is the Tea Party star, Michele Bachmann, a member of the House of Representatives from Minnesota, and, potentially, Sarah Palin herself. Neither stands a chance of winning the presidency, but they are capable of causing what Huckabee describes as “a bloodbath” in the party.
Huckabee isn’t surprised that the grandees of the party recoil from him. “I don’t adhere to their notion of Republican orthodoxy,” he tells me on the listing Lido Deck. He’s dressed in a blue suit, open collar shirt and Ray-Bans.
Back at a Republican primary debate in 2007, the candidates were asked to discuss the economy. They each praised 30 months of uninterrupted growth under George W Bush. Then came Huckabee’s turn. “I had the audacity to say that if you’re sitting in the director’s office, I guess the economy is doing swimmingly well. But if you go out there and talk to the people who drive cabs, and lift luggage, and haul these big heavy trays to the banquet halls where the nice people come and dine, they’re going to tell you the economy’s not doing real well for them. To this day I’m looked at as the guy who misspoke on the economy.”
Yet among the participants in the Freedom Cruise and the constituency they represent, Huckabee is immensely popular—he is, after all, something of a media celebrity. Like Sarah Palin, he has parlayed his political career into a right-wing media empire, including not only his Fox programme, but also a daily ABC radio show, bestselling books and a new venture into an “American exceptionalist” cartoon curriculum for children extolling, among other things, the Reagan revolution. He is conscious of his public, and spends two hours posing for pictures with each of the Freedom Cruisers, shaking hands, making small talk, even greeting one with questions about a friend’s furniture shop. The couples who have paid up to $6,000 apiece to travel with him are as much his audience as his voters.
“The main thing about radio and TV and speaking,” Huckabee says, “is that I get to frame the message. I choose it and I determine how it’s going to flow.” In his latest book, A Simple Government, that message is clear: the basis of western civilisation and good government is the traditional family—man, woman, and child. Liberals who support abortion rights, no-fault divorce, and same-sex marriage are akin to early 20th-century Leninists who sought to replace devotion to family with devotion to the Communist party. Government must remain local. The more centralised it becomes, the closer it gets to the “decadent” welfare states of Europe that have traded freedom and opportunity for dependence and moral degeneracy.
Strident? Indeed, but said with remarkable affability, both on the page and in person. Huckabee is as far-right on social issues as American public discourse gets (“I’m ideological to the core,” he tells me, unabashedly), but unlike his colleagues at Fox News, anger isn’t his selling point. He’s the smiling face of conservatism: the charming, corny self-deprecator who never misses an opportunity to remind his audience he’s a simple guy.
“He looks you in the eye,” Loretta Crow-Seymour, a farmer from Tallulah, Louisiana tells me. With the Mississippi in a once in a 100 year flood, she and her husband James considered cancelling their trip, but decided to move the animals to higher ground and celebrate their twelfth anniversary the same way they did their honeymoon, on an Alaskan cruise. Only this time with the man they still wish would run for president.
Maggie Benedict and Jinx Drda from suburban St Louis were also greatly disappointed to hear Huckabee had bowed out of the presidential race. They’ve always voted but it wasn’t until Obama’s victory that they became more active in politics.
“It’s the first time I’ve felt the president wasn’t a true American,” Maggie says. “And that he wants to become a dictator. We didn’t like seeing him get elected because of his race.”
Mike Huckabee (standing) meets fans on the cruise
The following afternoon in the Princess Theatre, a 500-seat cavern on Promenade Deck Seven, the “Huckabites” gather for their second of five musical entertainments. New River, a trio from Georgia, ends its set of plaintive praise for Jesus sung over canned guitar with the story of how their tour bus once hit and killed an ageing pastor. This event troubled them greatly and they prayed with the dead man’s family; shortly after, their bus was hit by a semi-truck, an accident they all survived, making them realise that one never knows what God has in store.
The irony of a Christian gospel gathering on a steroidal pleasure boat is not lost on the Freedom Cruisers (for one thing, Southern Baptists don’t drink). While they sit in this darkened theatre, their fellow passengers are gambling, attending seminars on how to get a celebrity smile and flawless skin, playing bingo, watching a slideshow on Jackie Kennedy’s jewellery, or taking part in one of the contests—earlier I saw Debby from Kansas City and Wendy from Phoenix shake their asses before a cheering crowd to win a Raspberry Crème Brûlée Martini.
Guy Penrod, a lupine fiftysomething country and gospel rocker with waist-length grey hair and a trimmed goatee, is the star of the Freedom Cruise concerts. He’s also the most vocal about the opportunity his fellow Christians have this week. They can get out there on the ship and minister to the lost—those “who have not met the lover of their soul.” Penrod is the son of a Baptist preacher and he met his wife Angie, with whom he has eight children, at Liberty University in Virginia, founded by the televangelist Jerry Falwell. “The Bible is a manual for living,” he tells the crowd. “You can spread that news, you can be Jesus to them.” The audience applauds and amens and raises its hands in praise. The guitar strikes up, the lights swirl, and he sings: “Though none go with me, still I will follow, I will follow Jesus.” Such scenes are at best foreign (and at worst, anathema) to the Republican party’s economic libertarians and Wall Street conservatives, who for the last 30 years have found themselves in an odd political marriage with evangelical Christians.
Gospel singer Guy Penrod, star of the Freedom Cruise concerts
A generation ago, southern Christians, including Huckabee’s parents, were virtually all Democrats. The New Deal coalition that set the terms of the governing consensus in the US from the 1930s to the 1960s brought together an alliance of progressive elites, unionised industrial workers, and southern agrarian whites. Forged by President Franklin D Roosevelt in the cauldron of the depression, the New Deal kept taxes high on the wealthy and, riding the postwar boom, created a giant middle class. But it rested on an uneasy peace between northern liberals and southern segregationists, a peace that began its long collapse with the advent of the civil rights movement.
Two Republican presidential campaigns planted the seeds of what would replace it. The first was that of Barry Goldwater, who in 1964 suffered electoral defeat to Lyndon Johnson, but not before laying down a strong political credo of small government and low taxes. The second was Richard Nixon’s 1968 victory, which played on the country’s fears of race riots and sexual liberation. Together, these campaigns helped to codify the basic tenets of modern US conservatism that came to ascendancy with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The generally wealthier, libertarian wing of the Reagan coalition sought to limit government regulation of business. The more working-class Christian conservatives aimed at reversing the legalisation of abortion and the strict enforcement of the separation between church and state, which they saw as the cause of lax morality.
George W Bush appealed to both these constituencies but, by prosecuting two nation-building wars and expanding the size of Medicare with a drugs benefit plan, he abandoned his party’s belief in small government. Many conservatives, including a number of the Freedom Cruisers, consider his presidency a failed one. Yet despite this, and the ongoing pain of the recession that began on Bush’s watch, it becomes clear to me in talking to my fellow passengers that this alliance between social and fiscal conservatives, which spans the ever-widening income gap, remains remarkably strong.
This is apparent in the course of a conversation with Guy and Angie Penrod after the concert. Echoing Huckabee’s emphasis on Christian values, Guy speaks in heartfelt terms about the need to teach children that endless acquisition isn’t the point of life, and that the bankers who brought the financial system down should have been raised never to act in such selfish and disgraceful ways. But when asked for his view of Obama, he describes the president as a socialist and says he aligns himself with Huckabee’s economic policies.
What are those policies? “I’d repeal the 16th Amendment,” Huckabee tells me. That’s the one that created the income tax in 1913. Originally imposed only on wealthy citizens, it was the cornerstone of the effort to ensure that the US didn’t develop a European-style hereditary aristocracy. It’s a classic progressive tax: the more you earn, the more you pay. Huckabee would also eliminate the estate, gift, and capital gains tax; privatise Medicare through a voucher system; and introduce the so-called Fair Tax, a consumption levy that shifts the overall tax burden away from the very rich to all consumers. Huckabee claims that this 23 per cent tax on the sales of all goods and services would cover all government expenses. However, Michael Graetz, a professor at Columbia Law School, a non-partisan tax expert, and an advocate for a consumption tax (more like Britain’s VAT), has calculated the real percentage of sales tax that would be required to make up for the lost revenue is closer to an unworkable 35 per cent. The very poor would receive cheques to cover the extra cost of basic goods, but only up to the measly federal poverty level. It’s an economic recipe that makes libertarians jump for joy. It’s also largely downloaded from the conservative Washington think tanks, which constitute the very elite Huckabee professes to decry.
This is not to say he, or his supporters, are insincere in their anger at the misbehaviour of big business as well as big government. “A generation ago,” Huckabee says, “a CEO was paid 40 times what a worker was paid. Now it’s 700 times. I fault corporate boards who cross-pollinate with each other. I put you on my board and you see that I have a nice package, and now I see you have one too because you put me on your board. And no one’s taking care of the employee.” Yet what is his solution to this problem? “The market should adjust it,” he says.
This mix of free-market ideology and anger at big banks and their government enablers is nowhere more intense than in the Tea Party movement, the populist political force that stands behind Sarah Palin and from which Huckabee draws many of his fans. Any notion that this group was a paper tiger was put to rest in the 2010 midterm elections. In party primaries, Tea Party candidates defeated four sitting Republican senators, an unheard-of achievement, and beat the establishment candidates in three open seats. Their caucus in the House of Representatives now boasts 60 members. Tea Party demands for draconian cuts to government spending now drive the Republican party’s economic agenda. And they are exercising a strong rightward pull on the Republican presidential field, a demand for fiscal purity that will likely hamper the eventual nominee’s ability to appeal to the broader electorate. This is the bloodbath Huckabee hopes the party can still avoid.
The most popular phrase among Tea Partiers is “constitutional government,” words heard often on the Freedom Cruise. It refers to the idea that the US has drifted from the limited government precepts of the founding fathers and must return to them or face ruin. This is Huckabee’s argument in A Simple Government. According to this view, the solutions to the country’s problems aren’t complicated. The constitution is a short enough document and, like the Bible, should be interpreted literally.
This romanticising of the nation’s beginnings—books that relate to the founding fathers have become reliable bestsellers—seems to be the new meeting ground for social and fiscal conservatives. To the evangelical right, the constitution was divinely inspired (“There was more than human wisdom at work there,” Huckabee says). To libertarians “returning to our constitution” is code for eliminating or privatising not only the social safety net, but also the entire administrative state, leaving a vestigial federal authority over defence and diplomacy.
The biggest divide in the party, it turns out, is no longer between social traditionalists and free-marketeers. They have agreed, for different and often contradictory reasons, on small government. The rift is between those in the Tea Party who insist on a radical diminishment or shuttering of numerous federal programmes, and the shrinking number of conservatives who understand that eliminating the modern administrative state is neither practical nor good for the US.
Standing on the bow of the Sapphire Princess as we sail up the spectacular Tracy Arm Fjord within sight of the South Sawyer Glacier, I listen to a group of Freedom Cruisers talk about how ordinary and sane American life used to be. “We’ve lived through the greatest years in the history of the world,” Ron McNeil, a 66-year-old Tea Party Republican candidate in the Florida Senate primary, says wistfully. The wife of the couple chatting with him suggests, “maybe if we could just go back to the beginning and start over again, we could make it better.”
On the deck nearby an elderly Chinese couple are doing their morning tai chi. The Filipino waiters are, as ever, seeking drinks orders. A gay couple is having their picture taken by the railing, while overhead the PA announcer, who has been sailing these waters for 20 years, is describing the effects of global warming on the shrinking glacier. “I just think of all the people who look at this,” the woman says to McNeil, indicating the awesome sight before us, “and who don’t believe in God, and don’t even know it’s created. And it makes me sad.”
The following evening, back in the Princess Theatre, the Freedom Cruisers finally get what many have come for: the chance to hear Mike Huckabee talk politics. He comes on stage following Guy Penrod and in his usual, elaborately self-deprecating manner claims that he’s a far lesser thing than the spirit that travels through these musicians. He himself is a bass guitar player and an advocate of arts and music education in the public schools, a position that has put him at odds with conservatives, who think this is more of a liberal agenda item. “I refuse to yield the future of children to liberals,” he’s told his Republican critics. “Because I think they’ll screw them up.”
Leaning his still-substantial girth on a stool, he fields questions on everything from when people will wake up and drill for more oil to why the Administration endangered US soldiers by releasing so much detail on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He does his best to navigate between the audience’s desire for the kind of red-meat criticism of Obama-as-socialist that he himself serves in large portions on his Fox News show, and his own experience, from being a sometimes unorthodox Republican governor, that government isn’t always the enemy.
On Medicaid, the health insurance programme for the poor, he sounds more like a progressive Democrat, saying it shouldn’t be cut. The spectacles coverage that some budget hawk wants do away with is the difference between a poor old woman making it down the stairs or tripping, and costing the system a hip replacement. But when a white-haired man asks in a voice strained with frustration how the country’s going to get at more of its fossil fuels, Huckabee says the first step is to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, a position most moderates, who decide presidential elections, would find far too extreme.
This is the position that Republican party leaders find themselves in heading into next year’s election. Stridently conservative voters on both social and economic issues are demanding, with a great deal of success, that the party brook no compromise. They want Obama’s healthcare plan repealed, though it closely resembles the plan that Senate Republicans put forward in 1994 in response to Hillary Clinton’s healthcare initiative. They want same-sex marriage fought at every turn, though approval for it recently crossed the 50 per cent mark in a CNN poll. They want undocumented labourers arrested and deported, a position highly unpopular with Latinos, who form a larger and larger proportion of voters in key swing states.
Rather than trying to bind up this “fractured purity” as he calls it, Huckabee has opted for the relative comfort and simplicity of being a right-wing media celebrity. Palin has thus far made the same choice, resigning the governorship of Alaska when it began to conflict with her endless promotional and speaking tours. When I asked the Freedom Cruisers whom they would support now that their man had bowed out, the names most frequently mentioned were Tea Party favourites Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, the only African-American in the Republican race and another advocate of the Fair Tax.
Huckabee says his supporters are looking for “someone who’s unquestionably strong on the issue of pro-life, pro-traditional family and marriage. But who also appreciates and upholds the values of the working class. Who recognises there is a very important role to be played by farmers, ranchers, assembly-line workers, mechanics, people who have trade skills rather than hedge fund managers. Political outsiders who really have no thought they’ll ever be appointed ambassador to the Court of St James.”
In my encounter with Huckabee, these populist sentiments of his appear sincere enough, despite his support for economic policies that are, on balance, friendlier to the wealthy than to the poor. Like Palin and other Tea Party champions, he’s adept at expressing people’s frustration at a governing and business class that has delivered the country into such a sorry condition.
But the solutions to this crisis coming out of the Republican primary race thus far—cut more, cut faster, and somehow free enterprise will jolt the economy into overdrive—offer only a more hardline version of the familiar small government mantra. This may be enough to keep social and fiscal conservatives united, but the challenge facing Republicans in assembling a winning coalition in 2012 is much larger than that. They must find a way to blunt the extremity of anti-government sentiment within their own party to attract moderate voters, those whose experience of this recession has made them sceptical of the idea that anti-Washington sentiment is a sufficient answer to the problem of mass unemployment and high debt.
No US president since Franklin D Roosevelt has won re-election with unemployment running as high as it is forecast to be next year. Obama remains highly vulnerable over the economy. But for now, the weak Republican presidential field lacks a convincing argument for why any one of them should replace him.