A Little More Huckabee, a Little Less Bloomberg

John Heilemann might be my favorite political journalist these days, if for no other reason than because of this phrase from a 2007 profile of Mitt Romney:

At first glance, he has the appearance of an attractive standard-bearer. A successful businessman (he made a fortune as the CEO of Bain & Company and founder of Bain Capital) and organizer of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics before becoming the Bay State’s governor, in office he pushed for the passage of a health-care reform plan applauded on both the right and the left. He’s well spoken and great-looking, with blindingly white teeth and a head of hair that rivals Ronald Reagan’s in the annals of Republican follicular achievement.

Yeah, love at first read.

Anyway, Heilemann’s big piece in New York Magazine lays out the horror scenario of how Sarah Palin could wind up President of the United States despite her atrociously low poll numbers. The long and the short is that Mike Bloomberg eyes an opening, gets into the race, pulls wins in big states like New York, New Jersey and California, denies Obama an Electoral College majority, and the U.S. House then votes for Sarah Palin for president. Then there is much weeping for the End of All Things Worth Living For (that’s not in his piece, but it’s implied, right?).

I have a couple of issues with the piece, which I think is a great read, by the way.

The first quibble concerns Heilemann’s assumptions about Palin’s competition for the GOP nod. I agree about the difficulties that will be faced by the likes of Romney and the utterly unappealing Tim Pawlenty. But this?

Huckabee is widely written off because he lacks the capacity to raise big cash and his appeal is limited to Evangelicals, whose influence is fading in the party; many insiders expect him not to run.

I’m not sure where Heilemann gets the notion that the Evangelical wing of the party is somehow losing its veto power. Particularly with hard-line fundamentalists (as opposed to the somewhat less wacky “mainline” Evangelicals) it seems to me that they are simply working under a different interest group’s name: the Tea Party. Tea-baggers yelp incoherently about a lot of things regarding the economy, the Constitution, and the deficit, but they are also very clear that they reject the separation of church and state, that they think America ought to be an officially-Christian nation (or that it already is, thanks to their crack constitutional scholarship), and that Muslims don’t deserve the same rights as white Christians.

Make no mistake; there are crosses tucked inside those teabags dangling from their straw hats. Where do you think the Tea Party gets its enthusiasm for Christine “evolution-is-a-myth” O’Donnell? For Sharon “rape-and-incest-are-part-of-God’s-plan” Angle? For, well, Sarah Palin? (And don’t forget Newt Gingrich and his nearly-maniacal — and somewhat recent — crusade against All Things Secular.)

The hyper-religious wing hasn’t lost any power within the GOP. They’re anchoring it in crazy. So, sure, they might wind up deciding to back Palin over Huckabee, but their influence will not be something that deters a Huckabee run. They catapulted him from nowheresville to serious contender in a matter of weeks in 2007/2008. He hasn’t forgotten, and I’d bet he thinks he can do it again.

I agree Huckabee has a challenge — he never showed any prowess for fundraising, and Palin is no milquetoast, liberal-associating Sam Brownback, his only real religious-nut competition in 2007/2008. (Romney also put on the religious nut mantle, but I think voters’ perception never moved beyond the suit, the hair, and the flip-flopping. Oh, and the Mormonism. That too.) But it’s a challenge that can be overcome if he so chooses. So maybe the insiders Heilemann from whom gets his intel know something we don’t, but the cited reasons don’t quite add up to Huckabee sitting out the race. I think he could be a serious challenger to Palin because he a) stayed governor once elected (for more than one term even!), b) is every bit as charismatic as Palin, and c) far smarter than Palin.

Also important to keep in mind is that the GOP presidential nomination system is almost entirely winner-take-all, plurality-based. When Democrats compete for a state, they are awarded delegates more or less proportionally to their share of the vote. Republicans, however, get the whole slate of a state’s delegates, even if they win by tiny pluralities. In other words, a candidate could win, say, Iowa’s caucuses with 22% in a crowded field, and take every single delegate, even though it could be that this candidate is opposed by 78% of the electorate. So with crazy math like that, it only takes a few momentum-building wins in key states to lock in a nomination. John McCain was no conservative favorite, but he squeaked out small pluralities while Romney and Huckabee competed for more right-wing votes. In other words, the GOP primary process is really volatile by nature. So Palin could conceivably sweep it all up by February, or she could be fighting for every last vote to the very end.

Huckabee can win the nomination. Heck, some folks in high places are guessing he will:

Obama’s aides say they will most likely set up their re-election campaign around next March, roughly the same as when Bush and Clinton incorporated their incumbent campaign operations. They are more optimistic about 2012 than they are about 2010, believing the Tea Party will re-elect Barack Obama by pulling the Republican nominee to the right. They doubt Sarah Palin will run and figure Mitt Romney cannot get the Republican nomination because he enacted his own health care program in Massachusetts. If they had to guess today, some in the White House say that Obama will find himself running against Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor. 
But what do they know?

Second: On Bloomberg. I have to agree with Ann Althouse on this — I think Heilemann is perhaps a little to goofy over the prospect of a Bloomberg presidential run to begin with. He’s written on the topic plenty in the past, and while I take seriously the veracity of his reporting, serious third party runs are such gargantuan (and quixotic) undertakings, even for billionaires, that the political environment would have to be perfectly tuned for the precise candidate in question. Thanks to two-party entrenchment, a mere lack of enthusiasm for the main contenders would not suffice.

I find the proposed threshold for Bloomberg’s entrance also an example of wishful thinking by the folks Heilemann’s been talking to. I could see Bloomberg sensing an opening with Obama’s approval in the 30s, but low 40s? That’s pretty near where he is now, and at this point I don’t see a serious challenger to Obama in the 2012 general election. Obama will have to lose so
much of the country’s faith and good will to make impeachment by a wingnut Congress as likely than an electoral loss.

And as hungry for the office as Bloomberg might be, I don’t believe for a second he’d want to be the reason someone like Palin ascended to the presidency (nor would he be okay with a President Huckabee or President Gingrich). He’d have to be near-certain, as Heilemann notes, that he would win. I don’t think that certainty will ever emerge.

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