He’s one of the most well-liked and well-known national figures in the Republican Party. His name is Mike Huckabee. And make no mistake, he’s running for president in 2016.
As someone that championed his candidacy back when I was just a local host during the 2008 Iowa Caucuses, and has kept in contact with him since then (I carry an endorsement from Huckabee on my website), I am both excited and concerned about the prospect of him running again.
I’m excited about Huckabee as a potential standard-bearer because:
1) His likeability potential is sky-high, and if you think that doesn’t matter you haven’t been paying attention to American presidential elections since the first televised debate between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960.
2) He's a populist Republican who can't be branded a corporate elitist. He's not a "47%" kind of guy. The reality is social issues usually don’t doom the GOP in national elections. No Republican has ever lost the presidency for being too pro-life, but several have lost when they’ve been perceived to be shills for crony capitalists.
3) He mobilizes and energizes the social conservative base that has been largely dormant since George W. Bush rode that base to re-election in 2004. Sure, they still mostly show up and vote GOP, but they haven’t been energized to turn out their mostly disinterested friends in the past two campaigns. And that base’s energy has been a key component of every Republican presidential election victory since 1980. Huckabee showed in August 2012 he can still mobilize that grassroots army when he spearheaded the record-setting “Chick-fil-A day” in support of the fast food giant, which was under attack from homosexual activists for supporting marriage.
4) His ability to articulate, particularly in a winsome way, is a welcome change from every GOP presidential nominee since Reagan. Few can better articulate conservative positions in a way that seems congenial, not confrontational. The GOP has been losing the war of sound bytes for years now. Huckabee is a sound byte virtuoso.
Still, while those who were disappointed he didn’t run in 2012 would welcome Huckabee with open arms in 2016, his path to the nomination is hardly an easy one. I’m concerned about Huckabee in the primary for two reasons.
First, many committed social conservatives such as myself, who supported him in 2008, have since become more “conservatarian” in recent years. We are still staunchly pro-life and pro-marriage, but we now also see the most immediate threat posed to freedom and liberty in this country is government gone wild. We have come to realize much of what we oppose is subsidized, championed, and ordained by our own government (i.e. Obamacare). Therefore, we now view reigning government back within its constitutionally-defined parameters as a social conservative issue.
We don’t want “better” government. We want less government—a lot less. And a lot less government is better government.
However, Huckabee’s Tea Party credentials are largely non-existent, both because his record on limited government issues as governor of Arkansas was considered spotty at-best by influential groups like Club for Growth, and also because the Tea Party didn’t exist the last time he ran. In 2008 he did run on the “Fair Tax,” which is championed by many Tea Partiers and includes eliminating the IRS. Yet he opposed the recent “defund Obamacare” effort led by the Tea Party. Huckabee also endorsed Tea Party nemesis Ditch McConnell in his U.S. Senate primary. And he’s had a mercurial relationship with the controversial Common Core, which the vast majority of the conservative grassroots vehemently opposes.
Those are just some of the reasons why many of the national grassroots groups I know that fight for limited government are lukewarm at best about Huckabee 2016.
Unlike in 2008, when Huckabee was essentially the only first tier candidate that was a credible social conservative, there will likely be several credible social conservatives in 2016 that will also be credible on limited government issues as well. That’s why I believe Huckabee has to start building bridges now with influential limited government groups like Freedom Works. The former pastor in Huckabee also needs to play peacemaker, and bury the hatchet with groups like Club for Growth as well. Continuing to re-fight his last campaign with people that should be his allies against the Democrats is a loss-leader. I sided with Huckabee over the Club for Growth’s support of Mitt Romney in 2008. However, that didn’t stop me from soliciting their endorsement for my next book, or from them endorsing it. The current president, Chris Chocola, wasn’t even running the Club for Growth when it opposed Huckabee six years ago.
There are three primary factions in today’s national Republican Party—the establishment, the social conservatives, and the Tea Party. A non-establishment candidate needs to win enough support of social conservatives and Tea Partiers to win the nomination. Right now Huckabee has more skeptics than supporters in the Tea Party tribe. He can’t win the nomination unless he woos at least some of them.
Conservatives want to avoid a repeat of the last two primary cycles, when social conservatives and limited government advocates in the grassroots were split and that vaulted the establishment’s proxy to the nomination. We are looking for a candidate to coalesce behind so we can finally beat the establishment for the nomination for the first time since 1980.
Second, there will be an expectation level placed upon Huckabee this time around he didn’t have to face in 2008. This time he will be considered an instant frontrunner, so fundraising and organizational expectations beyond anything he accomplished in 2008 will be expected. Huckabee is now a wealthy man, which he wasn’t in 2008. He’s on Fox News, he was nationally-syndicated in talk radio, he’s an in-demand speaker, and he’s a best-selling author. He’s not the endearing upstart this time around. Mistakes that were once considered growing pains will now be considered fatal flaws, and stories about a lack of money won’t be about overcoming the odds but about not measuring up.
The field in 2016 is shaping up to be the GOP’s strongest array of alpha males in recent memory. It will be a dramatically superior field to the one Huckabee surprised in 2008, and he won’t sneak up on anybody this time.
Throughout his political career Huckabee has thrived as the underestimated underdog. This time we’ll see how he does as a front-runner.