Despite his current standing in the polls, Mike Huckabee remains an under-funded and chronically disorganized long-shot when it comes to actually winning the GOP Presidential nomination. While easily the most gifted TV communicator in the field, the former Arkansas governor displays some serious vulnerabilities as a candidate for the White House and his innumerable critics and rivals have attacked these weaknesses with gleeful ferocity.
Even if he fails to win a place on the national ticket, however, Huckabee’s startlingly strong campaign provides potent benefits for both his party and his country. In the two weeks remaining before the Iowa Caucuses it’s worth considering how the Man from Hope 2.0 has already strengthened the GOP.
1. HUCKABEE’S COMPETITIVE STATUS PROVES THAT MONEY ALONE CAN’T BUY A PRESIDENTIAL NOMINATION. In Iowa, Huckabee enjoys a substantial lead (over Mitt Romney) while national polls show him virtually tied for first place with Rudy Giuliani. He’s achieved this success – so far—despite the fact that Romney outspent him in Iowa by a ludicrous ratio of at least 20 to 1, and his national fundraising has lagged far, far behind Romney, Rudy, Thompson, McCain and even Ron Paul and Tom Tancredo. There’s simply no modern precedent for a candidate with so few financial resources making himself such a major factor in the primary process. Even those who dislike or distrust Huckabee, ought to acknowledge that his vigorous campaign helps the cause of wide-open, participatory democracy.
Countless cynical citizens say they won’t take part in politics because it’s all dominated by corporate interests and big money contributors. Huckabee, however, manages to compete for the prize despite a total absence of major corporate support and pathetically limited funding. If nothing else, his serious race to the White House ought to destroy the myth that a “little guy” can’t compete with “the big boys” when it comes to a national campaign.
2. THE HUCK-A-SURGE GIVES THE LIE TO THE CLAIM THAT THE GOP IS CONTROLLED BY OUT-OF-TOUCH ELITES. The image of a political operation dominated “Country Club Republicans” has done incalculable damage to the party. You’d have to be deaf not to hear the complaints about “the party of Wall Street” taking the place of the “Party of Main Street.” In that context, Huckabee is undoubtedly Main Street and the Wall Street Journal hates his guts. The current President is the third generation in his family from Skull and Bones at Yale; if Hillary won the White House (God forbid!) it would mean that five of our last seven presidents (Ford, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Clinton II) boasted Yale degrees. The Huck-meister on the other hand is the first male in his family’s history ever to graduate from high school -- an unimaginable tribute to the American dream. He didn’t do his undergraduate work at an Ivy League school, but at Ouachita Baptist University.
Among elite commentators and prominent conservative opinion leaders, Huckabee has won no supporters and only one defender (the radio host writing this commentary). For answering those who claim that planet earth groans under the control of some secret cabal of Bilderbergers, Illuminati, the CFR, Trilateralists or neo-cons, it’s useful to point to the current situation where a complete outsider with no globalist ties manages to shake up the Republican power structure (Yes, he’s outspokenly opposed to the Law of the Sea Treaty). While providing new excitement, energy and unpredictability to the Republican race, the affable Arkansan has pulled ahead of any and all of the Establishment’s favored candidates – showing that this establishment is vastly less omnipotent and fearful than previously assumed.
3. HUCK’S CAMPAIGN DEMONSTRATES THAT THE SO-CALLED “CHRISTIAN RIGHT” IS MORE COMPLEX AND DIVERSE THAN COMMONLY ASSUMED. The silliest and most misguided commentary about Huckabee suggests that his appeal arises solely out of his background as a Baptist pastor. In a typical column, Peggy Noonan writes in the Wall Street Journal: “The Republican race looks – at the moment – to be determined primarily by one thing, the question of religious faith… Mike Huckabee is in the lead due, it appears, to voter approval of the depth and sincerity of his religious beliefs as lived out in his ministry as an ordained Southern Baptist.” This is nonsense, of course. Evangelical voters may play a disproportionate role in giving Huckabee the lead in Iowa and South Carolina, but they can’t readily explain his similar polling advantages in Michigan, Delaware or Florida. The truth is that the polls indicating Huckabee tied with Rudy for the national lead indicate that his support is evenly divided between those who describe themselves as Evangelical Christians and those who identify with some other religious tradition or no faith at all. Not all Huck’s supporters are Evangelical, and not all Evangelicals support Huckabee.
In fact, very few prominent Christian Conservatives have endorsed the Arkansas Traveler – Romney in particular has drawn back from more famous Evangelicals than has Huckabee, while many others support Thompson, McCain or even Guiliani – just ask Pat Robertson. In other words, contrary to the Washington Post’s infamous (and long ago) description of Christian conservatives as “poor, uneducated and easily led,” the Evangelical community is decidedly split in this campaign. In addition to its other revelations, the Huckabee campaign shows that conservative Christians represent no dangerous or monolithic cult, but a diverse, complex and politically maturing community. If nothing else, the Huckabee campaign has provided a means for some disillusioned members of that community to rally behind a Republican candidate who offered a genial alternative when all his rivals seemed unacceptable for one reason or another.
Huckabee’s critics should acknowledge these contributions even while they continue their fierce assault on the candidate’s statements and record. For several reasons, it’s a bad idea at this stage to try to knee-cap or smear or discredit the former Arkansas governor, finding (or manufacturing) an endless stream of bitter charges meant to cripple him permanently.
Most obviously, serious political players ought to recognize the real possibility that Mike Huckabee will be on a national ticket at some point – if not as a Presidential nominee, then as a Vice Presidential candidate, and if not in 2008 then in some future election (Huckabee is only 51 – the only one of the GOP “Big Five” below the age of 60.) Even if his current campaign falters or collapses, he’s run such a remarkable race that he’s certain to remain a factor in national politics for many years to come. Republicans gain nothing by trying to discredit an individual who has earned, like it or not, his status as one of the party’s prominent leaders.
At the same time, Huckabee’s competitors should attempt to keep any attacks focused and fair. In that context, Governor Romney just sent out an especially nasty mailer comparing Huckabee to one of his predecessors as Arkansas governor, Bill Clinton—a particularly low blow for Republicans. In this context, Romney’s propaganda slams Huckabee for supporting “amnesty for illegal aliens” --- without acknowledging that the former Arkansas Governor now supports an immigration plan even more unyieldingly hard-line than Romney’s (you can read all about it on Huckabee’s website). Governor Romney insists on his own right to change his mind on big issues (including abortion, gun control, gay rights, and even immigration—where as recently as 2006 he publicly supported a “path to legalization” that he now derides as “amnesty.”) If Romney wants people to focus on his current positions, not his past statements, then is it fair to deny the same consideration to Huckabee?
Finally, party leaders should try to avoid the impression of “ganging up” on Huck because they will need the voters he’s been able to mobilize. There’s no doubt that Huckabee has inspired and energized many citizens who hadn’t been excited by any other candidate. Republicans will seek those voters in November, not just in the Presidential race but in a horde of Congressional and statewide contests.
It won’t help to insult those Huckabee loyalists by describing them as religious fanatics, or anti-Mormon bigots, or ignorant rubes, nor does it make sense to treat their candidate as some sort of embarrassment or a pariah. Huckabee served ten-and-a-half years as a successful and popular governor (including his experience as lieutenant governor, he boasts three times the service in public office as Romney, and considerably more time as an elected official than Thompson, Hillary, Edwards or Giuliani). While arguing about the best candidate, and the right approach to the issues, all major contenders deserve respect and appreciation their achievement in deploying viable campaigns and engaging the public in the most wide-open, unpredictable presidential race in memory.