A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
Mike Huckabee, affable host at this weekend’s Republican debate in South Carolina, occasionally (and effortlessly) upstaged the five presidential candidates who participated. The former Arkansas governor remains such a comfortable, self-assured media presence that many conservatives yearn for him to play a more prominent role in the party’s national leadership. Huckabee ruled out a second White House bid more than eight months ago but his continuing popularity as a host on FOX News and hero to religious conservatives raises delicate questions about the candidacy that might-have-been.
Could Huckabee have unified Evangelical Christian voters to keep control of the party firmly in the hands of social conservatives? Would he have enlivened the race with an easy-going style and populist appeal sorely lacking in the present GOP field? And given his obvious strengths as a candidate and the much-discussed weaknesses of the current crop of contenders, why did he make the fateful decision last May to shun the race?
Each of these questions deserves serious attention as a means to clear away confusion concerning the past, present and future state of presidential politics within the Republican Party.
1. Had Mike Huckabee become a candidate in 2012 would he have unified Christian conservative voters behind his campaign? No way; he failed to achieve anything close to such unanimity last time and, if anything, Evangelical opinion has become even more fractured. Victory in the Iowa Caucuses (with 35 percent of the overall vote) represented the high point of Huckabee’s 2008 campaign and even there the long-time Baptist pastor carried only a minority of Evangelical Christian voters. Exit polls show that 46 percent of self-described “born again” or Evangelical caucus participants backed Huckabee with the rest split among Fred Thompson, John McCain, Ron Paul and, yes, Mitt Romney (who finished second to Huckabee among Evangelicals with 19 percent). Christian conservatives have never represented anything like a monolithic voting bloc in Iowa or anywhere else; they are broadly divided by economic status, education levels, personal temperament and ideological emphasis. The anti-Mormon prejudice widely imputed to Born Again believers by the mainstream media didn’t prevent Evangelicals in New Hampshire (some 26 percent of all voters in the GOP primary) from giving a plurality of their support to Romney. Even in 1988, when televangelist Pat Robertson made an all-out appeal to religiously motivated voters in Iowa, he drew only 25 percent of caucus goers, with national front-runners Bob Dole and George H. W. Bush (neither of who had ever been known for fiery religious fervor) more than doubling his total in the Hawkeye State. More recently, Iowans gave the great bulk of their support in the 2012 Caucuses to two Catholics and a Mormon (Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney) while the two candidates who most strenuously emphasized born again faith (Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann) earned a paltry 15 percent combined. Despite long-standing liberal assumptions that Evangelicals vote like glassy-eyed fanatics for the most strident positions on a cluster of polarizing social issues, real life Christian conservatives make their political choices according to a combination of factors (including economic and fiscal attitudes, national security concerns, and qualifications of the candidates, as well as cultural values). Mike Huckabee, with his impassioned commitment to the right to life and traditional marriage, would have done well among Christian conservatives but he would have found it impossible to bring all of them (or even most of them) aboard his bandwagon – just as Rick Santorum will find it impossible, even after the endorsement by 100 influential Evangelical leaders who just came together in Texas.
2. With weary Republicans sensing something important but indefinable missing from their current nomination fight, could Mike Huckabee have helped to fill that gap? The answer is an unequivocal yes: he would have brought elements of charm, good humor and regular guy charisma that none of the 2012 candidates come close to providing. Watching tape of The Huck’s consistently superb debate performances of 2008, or even viewing his gracious role as host in this weekend’s South Carolina get together, gives some idea of what the GOP lost when he chose not to run. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich both rose from relatively humble backgrounds, but they’re so intense, hard-driving and tightly-wound that no one (not even their own mothers) could plausibly describe them as folksy, genial or easy-going. Rick Perry seems too goofy and Ron Paul too crotchety to qualify as populist icons, while Mitt Romney comes across as an unstoppable, soulless robot (to his detractors) or likable but stiff (to his admirers – and I admit I’m one of them). Compare them all to Huckabee, whose under-funded 2008 campaign connected with people in every corner of the country through the sheer force of his personality. He employed a masterful line to defuse media attempts to portray him as a fire-and-brimstone fanatic: “I’m a conservative, but I’m not angry about it.” Even with the bitter cross-currents riling the right wing in the Age of Obama, Huckabee’s optimism, likeability and friendly persuasion would have gained considerable traction had he chosen to run again. Anger is vastly over-rated as a political tool, and it’s no accident that the least angry candidate in the bunch has become the prohibitive favorite for the nomination. Mitt Romney insists he’s not really a “Massachusetts Moderate” when it comes to policy, but his moderate temperament and unflappable demeanor remain his most formidable advantages in combating his critics.
3. With all his impressive assets and his consistent popularity with the Republican base why did Huckabee decline to run? I’ve had the opportunity to discuss the matter with the governor and it’s obvious that there is no simple answer to that question. He has said publicly, “All the factors said ‘go’, but my heart says ‘no.’” Of course, rumors abound concerning the various factors that kept him out of the race. Most obviously, he and his wife have been building a lavish “dream house” on the beach in Florida while enjoying a life of relative luxury (thanks to generous TV contracts and bestselling books) unavailable on the meager salaries of a pastor or an Arkansas elected official—and unthinkable during an active presidential campaign. There’s also a problem with his weight: he acknowledges putting on substantial poundage after a foot problem curtailed his running and exercise regimen. Of course, a portly presence represented no serious obstacle to Chris Christie’s gubernatorial (or fleeting presidential) dreams, but Huckabee made a special point of his past weight loss and even wrote a book called “Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork” (2008). Finally, a clemency controversy erupted in 2009 when a violent felon whose sentence had been commuted by Governor Huckabee murdered four police officers near Seattle. Critics charged that his Christian compassion as governor led to twice as many commutations and pardons as his three predecessors combined. Huckabee eagerly defends his record in the face of such attacks, but in the frenzy of a contested presidential campaign the criticism would have become predictably nasty.
In the end, Huckabee’s heart (and prayers) may have led him to step aside because he believed one of the other candidates could prevail the fight for conservative principles against Barack Obama. It’s also possible that he concluded that no Republican candidate, no matter how skilled and inspired, would manage to dislodge this desperately determined incumbent.
If the latter assumption proves accurate, then President Obama remains constitutionally obligated to depart from the White House in 2016, when Mike Huckabee will be just turning 61 – considerably younger than Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich at the moment, not to mention enjoying an even greater edge of youthfulness over Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden or other Democratic contenders four years from today.