Over at National Review , Rich Lowry argues a point I’ve been mulling for a while now: that Mike Huckabee is enjoying a Howard Dean-like boom, which will fizzle once Republican voters realize what a general election disaster his candidacy would be. His appeal is too limited to a small niche of the GOP, his record is too liberal for fiscal conservatives, and his charm doesn’t outweigh the depth of his ignorance. In other words, he’s a fad.
I think he’s right about Huckabee’s ultimate nonviability, but the Dean analogy breaks down in a couple of places. For example, Joe Trippi says that at this point last year, the Dean campaign was already “eroding,” whereas Huckabee’s momentum doesn’t show signs of slipping. (Of course, a lot can happen in three weeks.) Also, Dean drew supporters largely because of his policies—particularly his anti-war stance—whereas Huckabee’s appeal seems more like a personality cult. Even as people learn about his big-government policies as Arkansas governor and his shallow understanding of foreign affairs, he doesn’t seem to pay the price.
But more to the point: If Huckabee is Dean, who is Kerry? Even if Huck flames out, there’s no clear establishment candidate to take his place. The National Review might see Romney as that man. But it’s hard to say whether the rest of America would. The Kerry surge in 2004 benefited from the perception that the senator from Massachusetts, while dull, was a safe choice. Neither Romney nor Giuliani can make that claim. Kerry had both a war record and an anti-war record, a strong reputation in the Senate, plus enough money to take on the Bush juggernaut. Romney has already taken damage on flip-flopping. Giuliani’s personal and ethical judgment still raises questions. Both issues would be devastating in a general election, and more so than they have been thus far.
What ultimately sank Kerry were factors that most Democrats didn’t see coming: the Swift Boat ads, Kerry’s “flip-flopping,” and his own lackluster campaign. But in the cases of Romney and Giuliani, you can see the vulnerabilities from miles away . One could argue that such foresight helps their chances. But in reality, they’re two candidates whose flaws run deep. Huckabee may be Dean, but Republicans are unlikely to find their Kerry.
Unless—and I realize this sounds nutty—that man is Fred Thompson. He’s got a lot of Kerry in him, if Kerry were a Republican: a solid conservative record, strong electability prospects, a dull campaign. He trails in Iowa and nationally, just like Kerry. He’s great on paper, just like Kerry. But in practice he would probably fail to inspire people to show up to the polls—just like Kerry. So, I take it back: If Republicans want a safe, ultimately uninspiring nominee, they need look no further than Thompson.