The Fox News Curse, and the Next Evangelical President

Mike Huckabee says he's not running for President, while Sarah Palin has started a bus tour of indeterminate relevance. Rick Santorum is in, but has little chance of winning. Newt Gingrich's candidacy got off to perhaps the worst start in the history of presidential campaigns by, among other gaffes, calling Paul Ryan's Medicare reforms "right-wing social engineering." But among the most damaging moves by all four of these candidates was each one's decision to become a paid Fox News contributor. For Huckabee and Palin, once two of the most promising candidates in the Republican stable, contracting with Fox illustrates everything that has gone awry for them since 2008.

As evangelical Christians, Palin and Huckabee must present themselves as broadly appealing candidates, able to win in a general election outside of Alaska or Arkansas. They're both capable of delivering stunningly good speeches; Palin's Republican National Convention address will undoubtedly go down as one of the best debuts in American political history (subsequent flops, like her resignation speech as Alaska governor, notwithstanding). Huckabee does not have a signature moment like Palin's, but in a stump speech, he's one of the funniest, most engaging politicians you'll ever see. (No wonder, with his twelve years as a Baptist pastor, a job in which funny, engaging rhetoric may well be the most important qualification.) Palin and Huckabee both wear their faith on their sleeve; the evangelical base loves them in the way that they do not love Mitt Romney, given his Mormon faith and flip-flopping social views. Huckabee and Palin are already talented, folksy, and pious, but candidates also need to appear erudite and independent in order to win the presidency.

So, governors, why in the world would you become Fox News contributors (or in Huckabee's case, host your own Fox show)? For Palin, the answer may seem fairly obvious: her early encounters with the "lamestream" media, as she subsequently began calling it, were unsuccessful, at best. Sure, some of her problems resulted from the aggressive tactics of Katie Couric and others looking to humiliate her. But mostly she seemed unprepared for the media glare. Perhaps this was understandable, given her meteoric rise to fame, but now she appears in safer venues like Fox, or her (since canceled) reality show on TLC. This only confirms the popular impression, of course, that she cannot handle media situations she does not control.

Huckabee's move to Fox is more perplexing. Having won the 2008 Iowa caucuses, and finishing second in the South Carolina primary, Huckabee could credibly claim the mantle of the next Republican nominee as easily as Romney. Both candidates had the increasingly acute problem of being former governors with no obvious work to do following the 2008 election. Romney chose, wisely, to work for Republican candidates, write occasional editorials, and generally stay in the background. Huckabee, conversely, began his Fox show in September 2008. To be honest, the show is pretty fogeyish, with less-than-scintillating appearances by the likes of The Amazing Kreskin and Tanya Tucker. If the show catered to a broader audience, and if it was not stuck in Fox's lightly-watched Saturday evening programming, it might make more sense. But Huckabee's show hardly reaches potential new voters, and it fosters suspicions that, like Palin, he doesn't thrive outside of the Fox bubble.

Among the announced Republican contenders, the biggest beneficiary from Palin and Huckabee's Fox follies may be former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty, an evangelical who attends the influential Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, has maintained some distance from Fox News; interviewing on Fox's programs, but not becoming a contributor. He has also not made much of an issue out of his faith, wisely guessing that evangelical voters will eventually see him as one of their own, without turning off the non-evangelicals so urgently needed to win. He maintains an image of ideological independence, and of an unobtrusive but sincere faith, which works well in a general election. (We might apply the same analysis to Rick Perry, governor of Texas, should he enter the race.) If President Obama remains vulnerable in 2012, Palin's and Huckabee's dalliance with Fox may well have paved the way for Pawlenty to become America's next evangelical president.