South Carolina Decides the Election

What follows are some detailed prognostications pointing toward a referendum on therapeutic evangelical Americanism in South Carolina that will decide the election for both parties. The story told here may, of course, look completely insane in a month’s time. But that’s half the fun. At the very end I predict the nominees and suggest something heavy about the political fate of evangelical Christians.

(1) At the start of last month I said that

what worries me about Nice Hugabee and Barack Obama — as opposed to what worries me about Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani — is that religious faith will continue to serve increasingly as just one facet of a more universal and abstract political creed — evangelical ‘Americanism’.

Today this worry is stronger. Also stronger: the satisfaction that a Hillary/Rudy race looks more remote than ever. As of this instant, it looks like the political establishment in both parties is in terrible shape. The two main questions are why and what’re they gonna do about it. The answer to the first is, simply, the establishments are ‘too divisive’. Only in the presence of real alternatives has this come to mean something in particular, and it’s not what we thought it meant. It’s not too politically divisive. It’s too emotionally divisive. I know Huckabee looks very emotionally divisive from a certain angle. But see how his victory is treated even by those who revile his Evangelical Values. What’re the establishments to do? I suspect they have no real interest in propping up their figureheads, only in mastering whoever topples them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — establishments are only bad when they do bad things — but it is telling, and should scare Hillary and Romney more than anything.

(2) So I expect that Republicans will have no problem with Huckabee as their candidate. A lot of people, for legit reasons, are uncomfortable with Huckabee, as we all know. But the real story about Obama’s performance last night is that Republicans (so says my gut) are prepared to roll over and die in the face of a monster Obama campaign, but will fight to the death against Hillary. The worse Hillary does the better Huckabee does, a funny fate considering Huck was once sitting around tables telling people he was the best Clinton-slayer in town. There is already a counterstory developing on Huck: “we’ve been too hard on the guy.” It helps that this is true. And the GOP desperately wants a winner. Huckabee apparently is quite serious about being President. And if Romney’s level of position-changing is acceptable (remember it’s how he’s done it that’s really done him wrong), imagine how relieved everyone would be if Huck got with the program. There’s no shame in it. Necessarily. In fact, party counterpressure on otherwise appealing nominees is part of the natural purpose of primary season. Huck has little institutional support and little money now, but that will change, fast, if SC works out for him. More on that at (3). But now the Dems. The Dems also desperately want a win and Obama is feeling his oats in a way that’s really exciting to them. Hillary won’t win NH by a big enough margin to take the wind out of Obama’s campaign. Hillary’s concession speech was notable primarily for Madeline Albright. And when you get there you get beat again. Dave Weigel’s comment is pretty telling that he keeps hearing from people who should know that Hillary’d be thrice-toasted toast were it not for her brilliant staff. That brilliant staff contains the youngest people that support Hillary; in spite of themselves, they are Obama’s natural constituency. The worse Hillary does the worse she looks: this spiral has always been her biggest weakness. Her biggest strength is somehow clawing back out of the soup when it seems safe to return life to normal with her finally out of this world. The last thing anyone wants is a protracted deathmatch between Clinton and Obama. NH is a gimme battle. But massive therapeutic pressures will be underway to anoint someone in a great group grope. And that itself is probably Clinton’s biggest hurdle now. Because it means she has to win in SC. And not by three points. And down there is Edwards, too.

(3) For the Republicans, SC is a three-man race between Huck, JMac, and Fred. Even if Romney wins NH I see him going nowhere in SC. For SC, only McCain’s fate in NH is of any importance. People who will vote for Huck will do so regardless of his NH showing. But McCain alone has the ability to kill Romney and Thompson in one swat. He has the vigor we can’t get from Fred and the balls that we can’t hear clanking when Romney walks by. (Note how he got his clock cleaned among male voters last nite.) These things go a long way in NH and SC too. If McCain wins, we’ll first know it in SC. If Huckabee wins, we’ll first know it in SC. If Fred, not McCain, survives to become the credible alternative to Romney and Huckabee, we’ll know it in SC. But if McCain comes anywhere near Romney or exceeds him in NH, Fred is done. And when that happens I suspect McCain starts accumulating support that Romney’s been unable to pry away. In SC the question once again becomes whether or not evangelicals are the decisive bloc in the GOP. Because basically they decide whether Huckabee or McCain gets the mo going into MI. This is important because Romney will not concede even if he loses MI. But the fat will already be in the fire by the time of the MI primary. By then either Huckabee or McCain, I expect, will have two wins. And Romney, at most, will have one. He and Rudy will be gazing with moist eyelids toward Super Tuesday. But if McCain moves into pole position no one will care, because he will be the anti-Huckabee, like Romney, but also the anti-Romney, unlike Romney. We are already gladly dumping Rudy. And vitriol against Romney is only deepening — unfairly, yes, but the contempt level is really a phenomenon. I expect a tough but decisive race in SC between Huckabee and McCain which will be a referendum on evangelical Americanism in which the balance is tipped by McCain’s deathless commitment to staying in Iraq. (Brilliantly, he can say 100 years while really meaning 8 at the most.) JMac then goes on to beat Romney in MI by a handful of points. At this point feverish talk of a McCain/Huckabee ticket will take hold, and off we’ll go.

(4) John Edwards can win SC without taking the election, because it’ll be his first win, a must win, and the girl next door. All he can do there is kill someone off. That it ain’t her is Clinton’s last best hope. If she wins NH by more than 5 points she will be a crazed and frantic demon of bugged-out smiles and shrill pep. If she loses people will come to her rallies simply to gape quietly for a few minutes. If Obama beats Clinton it doesn’t matter what place he comes in. He’ll be a proven national candidate, with all the race baggage that involves. I’d like to think that would end the one-drop rule for good, but more certainly it’ll end Hillary Clinton’s race for the Presidency. And John Edwards will have to figure out whether or not he wants to be veep again.

(5) To get out of the weeds again and conclude, I don’t like the therapeutic value of Obama and Huckabee, but the alternatives have been deeply unable to make a convincing case for themselves. (With the exception of John McCain, who is emotionally divisive only for conservatives who would gladly select him instead of Huckabee.) The party establishments have a vested interest in glomming, and tested ability to glom, onto whoever stirs the party faithful. Whichever candidates have no wins to their name after SC will find themselves some very lonely human beings. Bottom line prediction: whoever beats Huckabee in SC will be the GOP nominee; if Obama beats Clinton in SC he will be the Dem nominee. If Huckabee wins, the establishment — or enough of it — will abandon the others and propel him to the nomination. The more Clinton loses the more of the establishment goes Huck. And if Clinton wins in SC she pulls a George W. Bush.

Is all this a long way of laying a bet on Obama/McCain? Yeah. PS: that matchup would put evangelicals in play for the first time since the ’50s. And I expect a lot of people would be fine with that.