“Come now,” I asked a Louisiana friend a few months ago, who used to work for Gov. Mike Huckabee, “Mike Huckabee’s a nice guy, but you can’t think he’s actually presidential material? I’m not sure even Mike Huckabee thinks Mike Huckabee is presidential material.”
“You might be surprised,” my friend said. “He’s a strange cat.”
“Maybe he’s just trolling for Veep? He could be a good Veep for some of these guys.”
“Here’s the thing you’ve gotta know about Mike,” my friend said. “He’s a prisoner who’s trying to break out. A prisoner of his birth, of being from Hope, of being a Southern Baptist preacher, of being from Arkansas and succeeding only in Arkansas…everything he’s done in life is about wanting to be bigger and better and have an impact beyond where started.”
“Forget President. Mike Huckabee wants to be an International Man of Mystery.”
We moved on to other topics, and I forgot about it at the time. It was way back when, 60 days ago, when Mike Huckabee was hovering below the 10% mark or less nationally, and had about as good of a shot at being the Republican nominee as Stephen Colbert. He was supposed to be another also-ran, a dancing bear from the early heydays of the three ring primary circus, with its cacophony of sound, kitsch, Fair Taxes, and sculpted butter princesses. This is what junior grade political campaigns do for fun before things get serious, before the kids leave the table so the adults can talk.
But somewhere along the way, something odd happened: the Mike Huckabee campaign turned out to be real.
Very real indeed, in fact: If the latest polling is to be believed, Mike Huckabee could realistically finish first in Iowa, third in New Hampshire, first in South Carolina, and second in Florida. This would be an incredible surge of momentum in January, all leading up to the 2/5 multi-state showdown that not even Carnac the Magnificent can decipher.
The rise is due to a multitude of factors: Huckabee has a solid base to grow on, with excellent ability to reach out to evangelical social conservatives – many of whom felt particularly left out of this cycle, disappointed in Thompson and Romney as candidates. Add to that the more mainstream Republicans who had hoped Giuliani would turn out to have fewer flaws than he has, and it’s clear Huckabee has tapped into a wide range of GOP voters who were still looking for an answer to the question: Who’s going to lead us against Hillary, make us proud, and actually win?
As the debates have gotten more and more viewership among Republican voters, Huckabee’s natural political abilities have shined, and many Republicans believe they’ve found their answer. Huckabee’s no policy wonk; he’s a communicator, naturally suited for the pulpit and the podium. There’s a bit of the snake oil salesman about him at times, and one suspects he could’ve sold bushels of it off a stump back in the day, but he does it naturally, without apparent malice or Romney’s nervous rehearsal tics. After years of wishing for a president who had the ability to bob, weave, and think on his feet when confronted with difficulty, Republican primary voters love this quality in Huckabee.
And there’s something more: if in this strength Huckabee does not resemble President Bush, in a great many others, he greatly resembles the W. we met in 2000. Huckabee is a southern social conservative who speaks the language of compassion and reaches out to minority voters, like Bush; he is accused of lacking the experience needed to lead the country in a difficult time, like Bush was; and he has a foreign policy resume that is quite thin when matched up against, say, John McCain…again, we see the similarities.
Perhaps this is just a sign that, as Peter Beinart and other less sophisticated sources have suggested, the country is in many ways returning to a pre-9/11 political mindset. As the news from Iraq turns more positive and people are convinced American troops will return home in the near future, they are evaluating candidates as they did before that trying event: based on personality and having a winning smile, not strategic capability or anti-terror rhetoric. So Rudy fades, Huckabee rises, and the country changes again, back toward the way it was.
There are differences too, of course – revealing ones. Unlike Bush, Huckabee has no money, no organization, no institutional support, no Karl Rove, and started with very little name ID. He is perhaps better known as “that governor who used to be fat” than the favored son in a political dynasty. Yale and Harvard aren’t on his resume; Huckabee started from scratch, and had to build his success by using his natural gifts to the fullest. Where Bush gave clumsy answers about his faith, and was mocked (though it turned out to benefit him) for referencing Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher, Huckabee has given excellent responses to challenging questions about evolution, homosexuality in the military and in marriage, abortion, social justice and the death penalty. This is his wheelhouse, and Huckabee hasn’t missed a pitch.
And there’s another area where Huckabee is unlike Bush: W never faced this kind of revulsion by a portion of the base of his own party. We’ve witnessed a good deal of this on RedState of late. Much of this is deserved; there is little in Huckabee’s political resume to suggest that he is or will govern as a fiscal conservative, and there is a real concern that his brand of politics will leave many socially libertarian, fiscally conservative or security minded voters cold.
That said, we should be surprised by how hateful some of these responses are to a candidate who is, whether you like him or not, clearly conservative to moderate across the board. Republicans nationally were quite satisfied with Huckabee’s rise in Arkansas, his political tenure hardly had the kind of question-raising incidents of GOP disloyalty that Mayor Giuliani’s did, and I’m sure we’d all be supporting Huckabee if he were running for Senate instead. He certainly didn’t pass a statewide universal health care plan, or anything like that – but is that supposed to be a negative?
In any case, he’s the hottest property now, so Politics 101 says attack, attack, attack. Over the past three days, I’ve received emails from opposing campaigns comparing Huckabee to Democrats from Bill Clinton to Jimmy Carter, History’s Greatest Monster. They seem to be particular fans of using this Wayne Dumond case against Huckabee, despite the candidate’s own clearly agonized experience on an issue which has absolutely no relevance to his experience as president (unless one thinks Huckabee is going to roll back the death penalty as commander in chief, a ludicrous thought when one considers that he executed more criminals than any prior Arkansas Governor, and obviously than anyone else in this race). Or they get after him for loving swag as governor, as if he’s the only state executive to get gifts from folks (and heck, people, Arkansas ain’t that different from Louisiana – it’s not like he got a bunch of cattle futures).
The point is, this is getting ridiculous, folks. An email today went out from a campaign that shall remain off the record, except to say that they were based in large part on the reporting of Murray Waas. Hear me on this: If Murray Waas were to pen any article against any candidate’s campaign, it would be dismissed as the writings of a seriously unbalanced person with a penchant for wild accusation. But now that he’s a source against Mike Huckabee, we should treat this raving leftist as a valid journalistic source? I thought we were better than that, people. Take me off your list, because the next time you send me something, anything, based on the writings of Murray Waas, it goes on the front page of this site for all to see.
Mike Huckabee has numerous reasons that we should question his fiscal conservatism, his ability to govern the country in time of war, and his political staying power in a race against Hillary. But these are all valid questions we should debate and discuss – Huckabee released an immigration plan today that marks a much stronger statement than his earlier comments on the issue in my mind (did Chuck Norris write this?).
To me, I see one flawed candidate among many, one who has the ability to out-communicate and perhaps outwit the Left. It’s an attractive quality, and I can understand why people like it. It’s not enough for me – my chief concern is that, as with W on No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit, conceding to the language of the left to make a political case for conservative solutions ultimately turned into passing the language of the left into law. But let’s wait and see what the would-be International Man of Mystery does over the coming month, and then decide how he stacks up against Rudy, McCain, Romney and the rest.
The circus is about to close, and the real race is about to start. It’s time for the adults to talk.