“What are you here for?” “A facial.” “Oh me too.” Lobby of the Westlake Four Seasons, west of LA, and a few clicks inland from Malibu.

It’s not so much sprawl as ribbon development, a thin, endless trail of exurbs snaking through the hills into the hinterland. In Westlake, with the snow-capped mountains in the distance, the locals use the Four Seasons as a sort of local, hanging round the rococo coffee shop, getting their hair done, or just walking in and out of the front door to get the glorious feel of uniformed flunkies opening them for you.

The digital screen of Today’s Events shows the usual corporate fandangos – wireless companies having bonding sessions, faceless property developers mapping out the next 30 kilometres snaking out to the Nevada border – and in the Grand Ballroom, Americans For Prosperity, a group which, so its breathless videoloop informs us, is quietly beating back government in dozens of places. There’s scenes of AFP folks demonstrating against various legislatures, pork barrel projects – you know thats the cause cos they’re all wearing little piggy hats – and against the fabled ‘bridge to nowhere’, a project in Alaska connecting one virtually unpopulated island to an unpopulated coast.

We’re in hard-core anti-government territory, as Peter Foy, the ‘Ventura country supervisor’ informs us during the half dozen fill speeches as Huckabee hurtles down the freeway towards us. “I don’t think any of us here wan to to abolish taxes entirely,” he says, risking a split on the floor, before bringing it all back with a whooping “but it’s our money and we’re going to stop the government taking it from us.” Huckabee’s still not here, so they play a montage of Ronald Reagan, who is fast ascending to a sort of God-Ancestor status on the GOP side in this election. Just as the Gipper’s ‘hope not fear’ speech concludes with swelling Vivaldi, lights come up and the Huckster’s onstage. The Reagan loop had a few of the Gipper’s not bad gags, and so Huckabee starts off with: ‘I’m like the butcher who backed into his grinder … I’m a little behind in my work’.

Oh, Christ. This ain’t the Huckster’s crowd and he knows it. In Jacksonville Florida, giving his stump speech off a bandstand in a car park, and then cranking up the bass to play ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ he was a fish in water – half preacher, half entertainer all good ol’ boy. He’s taken this gig because it’s close to tonight’s Republican debate, but he’s in Romney territory here – the mere mention of Mitt in an earlier speech got spontaneous applause. It’s a smooth crowd, living on dividends, and they recognise Mitt as one of their own. The preacher-rocker-miracle dieter Huckabee has a few too many rough edges for them.

He’s also wildly off-message – but then so is everyone in the Republican race, because what they’re calling for is so utterly incoherent that none of it even begins to add up. Every candidate repeats the ‘we’re american we can do anything’ mantra, the ‘get government off our backs’ mantra – and then calls for massive social investment initiatives that can only be done by co-ordinated state-market schemes in the manner of of ‘old’ Europe, Korea etc.

Romney wants to revive the rust-belt, when people are leaving it in droves for service jobs in Vegas and Phoenix, McCain supports the recent pump-priming ‘stimulus package’, and Huckabee … well Huckabee tells this avowed free-market crowd that there is ‘no freedom unless we can produce all our own food and all our own fuel’. This gets the usual whoops and applause, without anyone noticing that, insofar as it is a coherent policy at all, it’s the old idea of defensive autarchy – making your nation totally self-reliant as a preparation for future wars.

“We’re funding both sides of the war on terror” the Huck remarks, pointing to the vast amounts of money going to Saudi coffers and on to Al-Qaeda. True enough, but you can’t support smaller government and simultaneously promise to make the country self-reliant in eight years. Left to its own devices, the domestic American market will suck on the oil teat, until the Middle East is entirely hollowed out. Ditto with food self-sufficiency, especially food self-sufficiency IN AMERICA. There’s three big guys in Idaho who consume the equivalent of Ghana each year.

What all the candidates are appealing to – the partial exception is McCain – is pure nostalgia: the time when American could dominate the world, with the illusion that it was all being done through entrepreneurialship and know-how, without factoring in the massive state investment in R and D from the New Deal onwards that made such explosive economic growth possible.

The idea that reversing what may be a pretty major economic slide may necessarily involve state planning and intervention is simply inadmissable – and to admit that this will be necessary merely to slow the process of ceding economic power to Asia would have the top-hatted valets chucking the Huck out the front door into the faux-Japanese ceremonial garden.

But Huckabee has no intention of doing so. What he’s selling is his crackpot idea of abolishing the IRS for a single consumption based ‘fair tax’, which would manage to be both hideously regressive, inflationary and wouldn’t come close to funding America’s basic running costs.

Gotta say I like Huckabee more than any candidate I’ve seen, even though a fair few of his ideas can be sorted into the crankish, the pernicious and the literally antediluvian. But he has a realness to him that the others lack. The bass has something to do with it – it’s not juts Clinto doing a one-off with the saxophone. Huckabee can really play, and taking it on the stump was a brilliant move.

The bass is a workhorse instrument, and playing it before a crowd is – in the postmodern times – about the same as hammering a spike into a new railroad was in the nineteenth century. Launching into Blue Suede Shoes, the Huck drops his persona – he’s in the music, keeping on the beat, absorbed. For everyone who played in a garage band or wanted to, it’s a moment of absolute communion.

With Giuliani out, Huckabee is most likely the next to go – but unlike John Edwards, who also dropped out today, he’s going to go to Super Tuesday to see what he can get. Will he get a VP invitation from either McCain or Romney? It’s being talked about, but somewhat wistfully – for Huckabee is only useful as evangelical bait, and all the polls to date have shown that he’s been unable to deliver that vote as a bloc.

And the great fear is that a Huckabee VP run would actually drive people away – people who think evolution is probably proved by now, and that a trillion dollar military probably needs income tax to survive. Would this crowd go for Huckabee? “I can live with Mike,” says one local white-shoe brigade member, going into the Buddha bar. “But if he gets in – pointing to USA Today’s cover with a smiling John McCain on it – then I ain’t voting.”

Which suggests to me that the GOP has just checked into the Hotel California. Strange place for the Huckabee to be.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey