The more I think about Mike Huckabee’s stunning 18% showing at the Iowa straw poll the more I’m persuaded that he could be the exciting, unifying conservative standard bearer the GOP base has been craving.
Forget about Fred Thompson--- his long delay in entering the race makes him look increasingly like the Mario Cuomo of the Republican Party. Remember when the New York Governor dithered endlessly about announcing his candidacy in 1992? At the time, he seemed to be trying out a new slogan: “A Mind is a terrible thing…. To make Up.” As an actor, Fred Thompson might like to take a crack at playing Hamlet, but the indecision bit doesn’t work well for a Presidential contender.
Moreover, his wife Jeri (described by the New York Times as his much-younger “trophy wife”) has already won a reputation as a controversial “dragon lady” for firing and intimidating staff on his non-campaign. Her glamorous presence seems to re-enforce Thompson’s Hollywood connections, and that’s not a great thing for a Republican candidate.
Moreover, Thompson’s campaign speeches so far have been distinctly underwhelming in their impact, showing none of the folksiness and force of his TV character Arthur Branch or his brief radio commentaries, for that matter.
I challenge any die hard Fred Heads to watch tape of Thompson addressing a live audience and then to contrast it with tape of Huckabee working a crowd – or performing at one of the televised debates. There’s no comparison: Huckabee spontaneously deploys the warmth, humor, gift of gab, accessibility and kindness that we haven’t seen in a GOP Presidential contender since Reagan. He comes across as a regular guy who cares about other regular guys. He also possesses a rare ability to craft catchy phrases that connect with people. As he told audiences in Iowa, “One of the things I think I’ve brought to the process is unapologetically I’m a conservative – but I’m not mad at anybody over it.”
And it’s tough for anyone, from any faction in the party, to feel mad at Mike Huckabee.
Each of the other front-runners have managed to tick off some substantial segment of their fellow Republicans: McCain for his support of campaign finance restrictions and immigration reform, as well as his opposition to Bush tax cuts; Giuliani for his moderate positions on social issues like guns and abortion and his complicated and much-too-colorful personal life; Romney for his slick shifts in position on a range of issues and (unfairly) for his devout commitment to a controversial church. It’s true that some militant secularists will feel uncomfortable with Huckabee’s fervent Christianity and his background as a highly successful Baptist pastor, but those who are put off by his genial brand of religiosity are probably unavailable as GOP voters in any event.
Aside from his likely ability to unify the party, two other factors argue for Huckabee as the strongest possible GOP standard bearer.
First, his distinctly blue-collar, proudly working class background will help to destroy the notion that Republicans are the party of Wall Street and the country club. Mitt Romney may be worth $250 million and is the son of a governor, John McCain’s the son (and grandson) of high ranking admirals, but Huckabee’s the first member of his family ever to graduate from high school. Obama and Romney boast degrees from Harvard, Hillary went to Wellesley and Yale, and McCain graduated (barely) from Annapolis, while Huckabee earned his degree (in two-and-a-half years) from Ouachita Baptist University. During reconstruction on the Arkansas governor’s mansion, the Huckabees (he’s been married to his high school sweetheart for 33 years) lived proudly in a trailer to save the taxpayers money. And speaking of double-wides…. his recent loss of 110 pounds (and completion of numerous grueling marathons) helps him connect with the American majority that fights the daily battle of the bulge. After freakishly fit contenders like the Skull-and-Bones duo Bush and Kerry, it’s refreshing to consider a candidate who’s so much more like the rest of us. The old Democratic class warfare tactics simply won’t work against Huckabee—his personal style and background make it impossible to associate him with some privileged elite.
The second big advantage of a Huckabee nomination involves his ability to suppress any third party vote on the right. A recent analysis by the Rasmussen polling operation suggests that in the likely event that Hillary becomes the Democratic candidate we’re in for another extremely close election. The American people have already largely made up their minds about Senator Clinton --- her name produces very few responses of “undecided” or “don’t know.” Unless she commits some major gaffe after getting the nomination, her vote total won’t fall below 45%, and stands little chance of rising above 50%. This means that the election – like those of ’92, ’96, and 2000 – will almost certainly produce a President with a popular vote minority, with fringe party candidates playing a decisive role. In 2000, Ralph Nader on the left drew nearly three times as many votes as Pat Buchanan on the right; without the Nader factor, Al Gore would have won a clear-cut victory no matter how the votes were counted. In 2008, there will definitely be more third and fourth party candidates – former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (or Nader again) on the left, and Alan Keyes or Minuteman Jim Gilchrist or, conceivably, Tom Tancredo on the right. If Rudy Giuliani became Republican standard bearer, an angry right-winger could draw 3% or more of the vote and easily tilt the election toward Hillary. With a Huckabee candidacy, on the other hand, a self-righteous anti-abortion, anti-immigration, anti-globalism fringe campaign becomes less powerful (and less necessary, for that matter). Those who worry that international conspirators are subverting American sovereignty as part of some CFR or Neo-Con conspiracy will feel far less fearful of Huckabee than of any other major candidate.
Finally, there’s the current press infatuation with the former Arkansas governor – a rare blessing for any conservative. They like Huckabee not only because he’s charming and funny, but because the media love a good underdog story. An under-funded candidate who comes out of nowhere (and Hope, Arkansas is just about nowhere) to challenge the big boys makes a great, inspiring yarn and helps sell newspapers or win TV viewers. The other contenders have all done something (or many things) to alienate the press: Giuliani made enemies of most national media during his tough-guy years as Mayor of New York, McCain looked like he betrayed his cherished “maverick” status when he reached out to conservative Christians, Thompson has delayed and dilly-dallied much too long before entering the race and facing the press, while Mitt Romney has begun to earn a reputation for smiling evasiveness in confronting tough questions.
Of course, the current press infatuation with Huckabee (even from the New York Times) probably won’t last, but the new Man from Hope needs to milk it while he can.
The big negatives the press will no doubt begin to attach to the surging Huckabee campaign involve the notion that he’s just too religious (and doesn’t believe in undirected, random Darwinism) and that he’s got no experience in foreign policy. In response, Huckabee’s defenders might cite a prior Governor of Arkansas who also had no foreign policy background but became a popular two-term president, and a recent Governor of Texas who also entered the White House without a resume of meaningful diplomatic encounters.
Moreover, when it comes to holding elective office, Huckabee served the people of his state for thirteen years – three years as Lieutenant Governor and ten as Governor – giving him more experience as an elected public official than Giuliani, Romney, Thompson, Obama, Edwards, Hillary – or George W. Bush. .
In other words, the arguments in behalf of a Huckabee candidacy remain potent and persuasive while those against his nomination seem easily deflected.
Does this summary of his flavor-of-the-week status amount to an endorsement?
Not exactly, since McCain, Giuliani and Romney also seem to me great and worthy contenders who deserve a chance to make their cases to the people.
But in one sense, I’m ready for an enthusiastic commitment to take one step forward with ‘Aw Shucks Huck: as far as I’m concerned, the former Governor of Arkansas has already earned an endorsement as a first tier candidate for the Republican nomination for the Presidency. His inclusion among the elite survivors of the early winnowing process can only strengthen the campaign, the party and, ultimately, the country.