Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told a gathering of social conservatives in Washington last weekend, in a boffo speech that received repeated standing ovations, that "it's important that the language of Zion is a mother tongue and not a recently acquired second language."
Not only is Huckabee a native speaker, he is a surpassingly silver-tongued one. By the time he finished his speech, with a stirring peroration invoking biblical underdogs beginning with David ("that little shepherd boy with five smooth stones"), the audience seemed ready to follow this presidential long shot into the lion's den.
Huckabee's speech had echoes of Howard Dean's fiery call to the faithful at a Democratic National Committee meeting in 2003; to paraphrase Dean, Huckabee was saying that he's from the social-conservative wing of social conservatism. That Huckabee has a pure social-conservative pedigree helps him in a race where none of the major candidates do, but much of his appeal is in the sheer nothing-to-lose joie de vivre of his candidacy.
Huckabee is in that golden campaign space once occupied by Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996 and by John McCain in 2000 -- dark-horse candidates unencumbered by large staffs or expectations who can afford to act on gut political instincts and enjoy themselves in the process. Buchanan and McCain both were rewarded with upset victories that made them major factors in the nominating contest, and Huckabee -- moving up in Iowa -- could yet enjoy a similar moment.
With almost no organization, Huckabee lives off his words. In oratorical talent, he's something of a cross between Billy Sunday and Ronald Reagan. He rose to the leadership of the Arkansas State Baptist Convention on his speaking ability. As governor, he didn't have a speechwriter, and there was no such thing as an advanced text. His staff got reporters copies of his annual state of the state addresses by doing a quick transcription of his off-the-cuff remarks.
Huckabee shines in the verbal contests of the debates, and his wise-cracking, guitar-playing persona ingratiates him to journalists. But for all his eloquence, what Huckabee lacks, fundamentally, is a message. Unlike past long-shot crusaders like Buchanan and McCain, there is no new direction in which he wants to take the party. He has different mood music than his rivals -- acknowledging middle-class anxieties and sounding nationalistic notes -- but these are more rhetorical riffs than part of an integrated worldview.
"I don't want to see our food come from China, our oil come from Saudi Arabia and our manufacturing come from Europe and Asia," he said in his Washington speech. There is so much foolishness in that one sentence it is hard to unpack: We import a mere 3.3 percent of our food from China; we're not going to be independent of foreign oil in 10 years as Huckabee promises; and foreign manufactured goods, by keeping prices low, are a boon to the middle class that Huckabee champions.
Lines like this are just part of Huckabee's act -- an act not in the sense of being inauthentic, but in the sense of being literally a rhetorical roadshow. Pundits now say that Huckabee has made the Republican contest a "five man" race. This is overkill. Without organization, money or an agenda, Huckabee is very unlikely to win the nomination. A presidential candidate has to be more than a performer. As one top social conservative says, "He's not running for Toastmasters."
But he could be running for vice president. He's a natural fit for Rudy Giuliani. If Huckabee wins an upset in Iowa, he will deal a potentially mortal blow to Giuliani competitor Mitt Romney. If Giuliani becomes the nominee, he will have to shore up the social-conservative base. A vice-presidential nominee with impeccable social-conservative credentials will be a must, and one like Huckabee -- an incredibly talented communicator with crossover appeal to the media -- will be a plus.
As for Huckabee's presidential campaign, it's a blast. Enjoy it while it lasts.