Mike Huckabee spoke on campus last night, to the second-biggest crowd I’ve seen for an on-campus speaker (the biggest was Maya Angelou, back in the fall, where a few hundred people were turned away). It was a very good speech in a lot of ways, but ultimately, the whole thing was kind of frustrating, both because of Huckabee himself, but also because of the audience.
As a speaker, Huckabee amply justified his reputation as the one Republican candidate with charisma. He was charming, funny, and self-deprecating, and knew enough not to give a regular stump-type speech with obvious predetermined applause lines. If he was speaking from notes, he did an excellent job keeping them out of view. He also spent half an hour or so taking questions from the audience at the end, which produced both the best and the worst moments of the whole thing.
What he said sounded terriffic, and not just in the very smooth delivery. He departed from bog standard Republicanism in all the right places. Early in the speech, he praised Pete Stark, the one openly atheist member of Congress, saying that he had a lot more respect for Stark than for a lot of people who profess to be religious, but act in a way that suggests otherwise. He also had some harsh things to say about people who believe conservatism is just about cutting taxes, and offered a more sincerely populist take on a number of issues than you hear from most politicians.
His major theme, and probably the best part of the speech itself, was an idea of self-governance. He said repeatedly that the key to real conservatism was not just slashing government programs, but responsible action. He said that the whole existence of government is due to a breakdown in responsible behavior– that if people would act in a manner that respected the rights and individual value of other citizens, we wouldn’t need to have a large and expensive government to enforce a large body of laws, and provide a large number of services. He illustrated this with a wide range of examples, from obesity and exercise to corporate crime.
It’s a lovely sounding idea. It’s not original to him, of course– James Madison said as much two-hundred-odd years ago:
But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
(He wasn’t passing this off as his own idea, by the way– he quite explicitly pitched it as rooted in the ideals of the authors of the Constitution. I just couldn’t resist quoting Madison.)
It all sounds fantastic, and I agree with pretty much everything he said, to a point. I am absolutely in agreement that if we could just count on people to be excellent to one another, everybody’s lives would be much happier, and government would be a lot cheaper. And I think it would be great to live in a world where that sort of thing worked out.
Where he loses me is at the very end, when he says that this ideal requires people to live by a “moral code.” Which in itself is innocuous, but it’s just too obviously a dog-whistle phrase. He’s got a very particular moral code in mind, and I’m just not that enthusiastic about it.
It’s frustrating, because it’s lovely rhetoric, and he makes it sound great. But there’s that creepy religious undercurrent (that isn’t all that under), which just sours the whole thing for me.
This led into the question period, which was frustrating for an entirely different reason, having to do with the questions from the audience, chiefly the repeated questions about gay marriage.
I absolutely understand asking the gay marriage question once– it’s one of a handful of obvious attack points for getting at the weaknesses in his ideal of self-governance via moral codes. And I have to give him a certain amount of credit for not sugar-coating the answer– Union isn’t all that liberal as college audeinces go, but there aren’t a whole lot of people who want to hear that gay marriage is wrong because “marriage” has “always” been defined as a monogamous relationship between one man and one woman, and that allowing gay marriage would open the door to polygamy and other even more out-there behaviors. It’s a desperately stupid answer, but it’s the only answer he’s got, and I have to admit some grudging admiration for him having the gall to just say it flat-out.
But here’s the frustrating thing: as much as his answer is desperately stupid, continuing to ask the same question over and over is also stupid. At the very least, you could vary it up a bit– if the problem is with changing the definition of marriage, how about civil unions? You could perfectly well imagine laws granting existing single-sex families basic benefits and rights– medical visitation, family leave, custody rights, etc.– without calling that package of stuff “marriage.” That would seem to be very much in line with his call for respecting the individual dignity of all people, supporting families, and all that. It would at least require a little weaselly behavior to answer that question with yet another repetition of the definitional argument.
But what we got was five repetitions of essentially the same gay marriage question, without even all that much variation in the wording. And he answered with five repetitions of the desperately stupid definitional argument.
I realize that this was partly that people got up to ask a gay marriage question, and then didn’t want to give up their spot in line, but really, think on your feet, people. If somebody has already asked a question that is functionally identical to yours, ask a different question. Ask him about capital punishment (that would’ve been a great follow-up to the abortion question that he did get). Ask him about the environment. Ask him about education, or economics, or, really, anything at all but gay marriage again.
Part of the problem is just that people aren’t terribly good at dealing with professional politicians in general. There really aren’t any obvious questions where you’re going to knock any of these guys off-guard. They have their positions on the major issues, and most of the minor ones, and the answers are basically canned. The 537th repetition of that answer is not going to cause him to crack and say “Fine, I admit it! The definitional thing is a crock– when you get down to it, I just think gay people are icky!” He’s just going to give the same answer again, and you’re going to bore and annoy people in the audience who have heard it 536 times already.
The best questions in these contexts are unanticipated questions. Miracle of miracles, we got one of those, from someone I didn’t recognize, but who looked like he might’ve been a student. The question was “Eight years ago, another politician from Arkansas came to New York to pursue political ambitions. Do you have any plans to follow in her footsteps?”
It took Huckabee a second to parse it, and then he broke out in the most genuine grin of the night, and said “I thought she was going to be a Senator for a while yet?” The audience completely broke up, and he said, laughing, “That’s going to make the papers.” (Amazingly, it didn’t, though both the Times Union and Gazette stories mention the gay marriage questions.)
It was a great answer– clever, funny, spontaneous– and it was a very good question precisely because it forced him to go off-script for just a few seconds. I salute the anonymous person who asked it. We could use more of those.