For years the Republicans have depended on evangelical voters ... Sooner or later their most reliable, most motivated constituency would want more than just verbal assurances of support or even votes on issues of importance—abortion, gays in the military, and so forth. Eventually evangelicals would want a president of their own.
The best metaphor is that of the blacks in the Democratic party. For years, nay, for decades, they have been its most reliable constituency, essential to winning states rich in electoral votes in presidential races. Of course the Democrats haven’t always won these elections … But they wouldn’t have come as close as did, particularly in 2000 and 2004, if it weren’t for that reliable Afro-American vote.
This was precisely what led Jesse Jackson to seek the Democratic nomination in 1984. Given the peculiarities of our primary politics, this wasn’t as outlandish a proposition as it might seem in retrospect … In the runup to [the New York primary] great was the panic in establishment Democratic ranks. What if Jackson won New York? Could they deny him the nomination?
You can see where this is going – Jackson then, Huckabee now:
If Huckabee goes on to win more primaries he will have a reasonable claim to the nomination … In spite of itself, the party might end up with him as its nominee, and with it, heading down the shortest road to disaster since the Goldwater debacle of 1964.
Make no mistake about it: an electoral defeat of these dimensions would represent a major watershed in the history of the Republican party. It would be faced with only two possible roads forward. One is to become the party of the religious right, a sectarian agglomeration somewhat like the small ethnic parties in inter-war Europe, perhaps capable of holding some governorships and seats in Congress but never again competitive in a presidential election. The other would be to cut itself free from the religious right and seek to appeal to the wide and growing tranche of independent voters who are socially liberal but economically conservative. In that case the Republican party would gradually resemble some of the “liberal” (that is, conservative) parties who periodically win national elections in Western Europe or Canada. These parties are friendly to market-based solutions to economic problems—that is, they are broadly libertarian.
Really? Those are the only two roads forward? Even if we operate in the peculiar universe Falcoff inhabits, where there are no “independent voters” who are socially conservative but economically liberal, rather than the reverse, isn't at least possible that the existing GOP coalition would simply reconstitute itself in the wake of a Huckabee defeat, with social conservatives chastened by their loss and economic conservatives singing a smug “I told you so” tune? That is, of course, precisely what happened in the aftermath of the ’64 race, which Falcoff holds up as a parallel situation: Instead of flying apart, Goldwater conservatives and Rockefeller Republicans made common cause in the next three elections, uniting behind Nixon and then Gerald Ford, and only parting ways gradually over the ensuing decades. Similarly, had a Jackson nomination in ’84 resulted in an even bigger landslide for Reagan than he enjoyed over Mondale, I sincerely doubt that the Democrats, however traumatizing their defeat, would have either become the party of black identity politics or jettisoned the African-American vote entirely.
And the Jackson comparison is weak no matter what. It isn't just the enormous difference between the political space occupied by evangelicals in 2008 and the space occupied by African-Americans in the early '80s; it's the weakness of the parallel between Jackson, a professional activist, and Huckabee, a successful two-term governor of a reddish (but not deep red) Southern state. If a figure like Pat Robertson (who briefly scared the GOP with his '88 Iowa splash) or James Dobson were filling the Huckabee role - someone with no experience in elective office; someone who finds their primary identity as a spokesman for their interest group - then the parallel would make more sense. But while Huckabee might well fare worse in a general election than his primary rivals (Stuart Rothenberg argues that he would; Larison is skeptical), it's wildly implausible that he'd be anywhere near as polarizing a figure as Jackson, or that he'd command anywhere near as small a share of the national vote as the Reverend presumably would have won as the Democratic nominee in '84.
The Goldwater parallel, meanwhile, is an odd one for a conservative scholar to draw. One would think Falcoff would be a least a little wary about making confident predictions that a particular nominee will consign his party to political oblivion, lest his prophecy be remembered in the same breath as Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s famous remark that 1964 demonstrated "what would happen if the parties were realigned on an ideological basis: The Democrats would win every election and the Republicans would lose every election."
Meanwhile, Bill Kristol kicks off his career as the man Times readers love to hate with a column defending Huckabee’s prospects in a general election. I’m not sure I share his optimism, but I will go this far: If Huckabee takes the nomination and doesn’t comfortably exceed Barry Goldwater’s 38 percent of the ’64 Presidential vote, I’ll happily treat Mr. Falcoff to a steak dinner.
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