Mike Huckabee, the former Governor of Arkansas, Fox News pundit, author, minister, guitar-strummer, Baptist Minister, and all-round nice guy wants to kiss your grandchild. He loves babies, as all good politicians do. But he really loves grandparents, especially senior grandparents, because…well, let’s be honest, without grandparents, there never could have been grandchildren. And Huck is just brimming with love and kisses.
Of course, Huck also realizes that when you visit a baby shower, you bring a gift. The problem is that babies grow up to be terrible-two year olds, and mouthy pre-teens, and impossible adolescents, and…they can’t vote until 2036, when even Joe Biden will have given up.
So, why waste your largess on someone who could be colicky, when you can do something nice for Grandma, and maybe she can crochet you a “Huck in 2016” pillow?
Granny is actually a pretty darn smart lady, well known to have sharp elbows at the weekly church bingo game, and ultra-competitive as well—her pickles took second prize at the County Fair last year. Grandpa’s slowing down and his knees are shot, but he still carries that black change purse with the clasp at the top, and no coin ever leaves it without protesting first.
So, with those tough customers, why not distinguish yourself from the other 18 or so Senior-loving Republicans who are running for President and explicitly promise to preserve Social Security and Medicare?
Why would Huckabee do this, and buck established GOP orthodoxy? After all, Seniors went Mitt 56/44 in the last election, and are turning into one of the most reliable GOP voting blocs. Why promise people something when they are already firmly in your camp—and you know you might want to take it away from them later?
Part of the reason is purely tactical. First, the GOP has been rather brilliant in appealing to Seniors. They have artfully managed to turn the “Third Rail” on the Democrats heads. Seniors may have a vague thought that the GOP loves tax cuts and hates entitlements, but that’s hasn’t coalesced in their minds. What they really fear is Democratic spending on schools, infrastructure, and any entitlement that doesn’t directly benefit them—and especially ACA.
The second is that Seniors, as a group, are more culturally conservative than the rest of the nation. But using “cultural conservative” is inaccurate shorthand, because we aren’t necessarily talking about Bible-belt cultural conservatism. Rather, it is a conservatism that is rooted in time and in place, almost a nostalgia for the way things were when they were growing up, the way they were when they first got married and had kids, and started to build their adult lives. They want those times back.
If you were born in 1940, the only gay people you knew about or suspected was the “confirmed bachelor” who lived down the block and the hairdresser. Add male ballet dancers and Liberace and that was about the spectrum. The idea that gays would live openly gay lives was ridiculous. And marry was a complete absurdity. As for yourself, you got married early, and the wife would stay home—first as a housewife and then as a mother. Married couples, even unhappy ones, stayed together. Married couples had kids, unmarried ones didn’t. As to your community, it was homogeneous, which made sense, because in the 1940 Census, 90% of Americans identified as themselves as white. The predominant minority were blacks, who largely lived in segregated areas, away from sight and sound, except for domestics and manual labor. Latinos were less than 5% of the population, and as they were concentrated in a few geographic areas, they were essentially non-existent in much of the country.
That world, of social and demographic mores, is gone, and gone forever. It’s more than just anecdotal. Every metric shows it. Unmarried births are over 40%--a doubling since just 1980. The divorce rate was 20% in 1940, it was 33% in 1970, when the oldest boomers were getting married, and it’s over 50% now. Nearly 60% of adult women are in the work force, and while progress has come more slowly in some fields, they are prominent in the professions. As for population and community—31% in the 2010 Census identify themselves as a minority—16% as Latinos.
These are gigantic changes in just a couple of generations. They are scary to a lot of people—not just nativists and ideologues, but to many seniors, who just want to live out their golden years in the security of the place they thought of as home.
Mike Huckabee gets that. And he’s very smart—smart in a way that few politicians, in either party, really are. He both politically savvy and has great emotional intelligence. He knows that the values he’s pitching from his pulpit resonate with seniors, particularly because he’s not a hellfire and damnation type. And he understands that the pastoral message for a congregant has to throw a little sugar in there as well. When you go to church, you are offered comfort, tradition, order, community, and a little support when you need it. Feed the soul, but feed the stomach as well.
This last part is what distinguishes Huck from the rest of the pack. Democrats are so busy offering help without rules that they just don’t seem to respect their elders. But, ask a good Republican aspirant for higher office what his true religion is, and, after he mouths a few pieties about faith and family, he will tell you what really moves him—tax cuts, and the elimination of entitlement programs.
Huck bridges the two sides. Huckabee tells older people that the conservative-life-the-way-it-used-to-be message isn’t one of anger, but rather one of regret and yearning. And, he tells them more—that their virtue and hard work has earned them their share of the post-working afterlife. That’s Social Security and Medicare, and those promises are an unbreakable covenant.
Expect to see that in the coming months, as the GOP begins its informal and formal debates. That isn’t going to make the party elders very happy, because most of people who have either announced or are expected to announce have embraced Paul Ryan’s plan to shift Medicare to a premium support system.
The GOP is going to pitch those changes as a positive good for Seniors—more choice, more security. But they aren’t, and every single candidate who is honest with themselves knows that. The new GOP budget just passed by the House and Senate shows their priorities—boost military spending, cut more taxes, and pay for it by going after every dollar that isn’t welded to the ground. And Medicare has a lot of dollars.
Republicans are gambling that Seniors won’t make the connection, or, if they do, they will place their social values and fears over their pocketbooks. But what they were really hoping for might not happen. Don't talk about it. Win the election, and then get around to tithing the older congregants.
Will Ryan’s plan be debated aloud, or will it just be whispered? That’s a tough one for Huck.
Let’s see if he wants to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, or unto Seniors the things that are Seniors.
One thing is certain, however. Kissing babies is a lot easier.
May 7, 2015
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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