Presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Chris Christie are working the Republican big-money circuit of Palm Beach, the Upper East Side of Manhattan and Aspen. In Jeb’s case, it’s going so well that last week he sent word to the deep-pocketed to hold off with donations in excess of $1 million.
Meanwhile, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is on a different journey. He’s concentrating on the voters who carried him to victory in the Iowa caucuses and seven other nomination contests in 2008.
The former Baptist minister hopes this narrow-casting will work for him again this time. On Saturday, he jostled with other presidential hopefuls at the Iowa Ag Summit in Des Moines. And late last month, fresh off another trip to the Holy Land, he skipped the CPAC cattle call in Washington to speak instead at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Nashville. That left Senator Rand Paul to win CPAC’s straw poll for the third time, an achievement that will likely prove as meaningful to his presidential ambitions as it was for those of Gary Bauer, Rudy Giuliani and Steve Forbes in years past.
What was meaningful was the implosion of Huckabee’s main competition in the political-religious market niche, arch- conservative former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, whose reception at CPAC was cordial but not ecstatic. Huckabee sat out the primaries in 2012 and Santorum had the evangelicals to himself. In the CPAC poll, Santorum failed to crack the top five, suggesting that the social conservative vote is Huckabee’s to lose.
The trouble for Huckabee is that the world has changed since his uncompromising faith and family campaign of 2008, and the space for such a candidacy may be a lot smaller this time. Consider the success of the publishing and box-office phenomenon, “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The movie version has surpassed$150 million in sales in the U.S. and $350 million globally since its Feb. 13 release. Last week, it outsold Oscar winners “Birdman,” “American Sniper” and “Still Alice.” And none of those could boast a themed sex toy line.
What Huckabee should pay attention to is who is showing up at the multiplex with or without handcuffs in a plain brown wrapper. It’s not the licentious inhabitants of the Gomorrahs of the two coasts. It’s the good people of the Bible Belt, who, ostensibly, would be repelled by the sex of the liberated, premarital, and certainly of the Marquis de Sade sort celebrated in “Fifty Shades.”
This is a movie that New York Times movie critic A. O. Scott said democratized “kink,” bringing bondage and spanking to the big screen, airport bookstores and reading groups. That means taking certain sexual practices “out of the chateau and the boudoir and other fancy French places and planting them in the soil of Anglo-American banality.”
Could red state America be taking on more of a French “je ne sais quoi,” becoming more like the parts of the country it loved to tsk-tsk at for so long?
Apparently, the corrosion may be occurring in Huckabee’s Arkansas, whose residents were among the biggest consumers of “Fifty Shades.” Such proclivities will be an awkward fit with Huckabee’s program, as it now stands. In his campaign manifesto, “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy,” and on the stump, the former governor dishes out the opprobrium to a wasteland of miscreants. He assails the mainstream media, Jay-Z, the Obamas for letting their teenage daughters listen to Beyonce, the “ick factor” in gay relationships and gay adoption (because “children are not puppies”), and sex before marriage, in general.
If anything, while the rest of the country is relaxing some of its attitudes toward matters sexual – especially gay marriage – Huckabee is doubling down on the fire and brimstone. He may have to revise his idea that the U.S. is divided between “Bubblevilles,” the morally suspect big power centers where joie de vivre is encouraged, and “Bubbavilles,” where the God-fearing (and presumably non-members of the BDSM community) live.
Bubbaville is Huckabee’s version of those “fancy French places” that Republicans used to hold up as representing all things un-American back when French fries were renamed “freedom fries” at the U.S. House cafeteria and a staple of Republican humor was making fun of John Kerry speaking for French. It’s the place Sarah Palin called the “real America,” filled with people who look and think and talk like her and Huckabee.
Will being intolerant and morally arrogant person once again be the easiest way to get the Republican nomination? Jeb Bush admitted to fearing as much when he said that he could win the presidency but not his party’s primaries.
Perhaps those exploratory committees should do a little more exploring. Huckabee, for example, should get himself to a multiplex before he sets out any more planks in his platform. Bubbaville may no longer be that far removed from Bubbleville. By some standards, it might be the more decadent place. Arkansas’ divorce rate is more than double that of the over- educated toffs of Massachusetts and double even that of New York. The rate of death by drug overdose in Arkansas is also almost double that of the Big Apple. And so on and so on through the whole long depressing list of social morbidities.
Huckabee is a campaign behind. Aside from Dr. Ben Carson, who may prove too out there to be a serious contender, the other candidates aren’t competing in the evangelical space. Instead, they are avoiding social issues unless asked directly, and answering clumsily when they do. It’s not as fertile a terrain as it used to be.
Governor, go forth and slap the backs of the bon vivants hiding in plain sight. You may find they’ve traveled beyond your narrow views of what is American and what isn’t. To win the presidency, you have to love the whole country, including those with a touch of the French. Vive la difference.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.