Liberals Who Love Huckabee

I used to be one of them. I still sort of am.

This illustration can only be used with the Bob Moser piece that originally ran in the 6/6/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
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Bob Moser
June 5, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

I thought I could quit him. I swear I did. From the first time we met, in Iowa in 2007, Mike Hucka­bee was noth­ing but trouble, un­set­tling my fixed ideas, se­du­cing me in­to pooh-poo­hing some of my staunchest con­vic­tions. The man was nev­er really my type — the farthest thing from it — but you know how that can make an at­trac­tion stronger. For­bid­den love and all that. Most of my friends, of course, nev­er ap­proved. He’s not like the rest of them, I’d protest. When he says he hates Wall Street and wants to build in­fra­struc­ture, he means it. He’s a Re­pub­lic­an pok­ing holes in trickle-down eco­nom­ics! My friends ten­ded to look at me either with gentle pity or the kind of with­er­ing scorn I might have ex­pec­ted if I an­nounced I’d taken a new job as Dick Cheney’s speech­writer.

But then, after the cam­paign, Hucka­bee broke up with me. He got rich and fam­ous from Fox TV, wrote best-sellers ca­ter­ing to the pre­ju­dices of his con­ser­vat­ive fans, built a de­cidedly un­pop­u­list sea­side man­sion in Flor­ida, even en­dorsed mir­acle cures for can­cer and dia­betes. He said mean­er and mean­er things about queer folk like me, and — per­haps fore­shad­ow­ing his re­cent, now-in­fam­ous de­fense of the fun­da­ment­al­ist Dug­gar fam­ily — grew even less reas­on­able in his over­all ap­proach to the cul­ture wars. All the while, he was tamp­ing down his icon­o­clast­ic, good-gov­ern­ment mes­sage — and sound­ing more and more like a stand­ard-is­sue Re­pub­lic­an rail­ing at “big gov­ern­ment.”

Still, the old Hucka­bee con­tin­ued to show up now and then. Last Labor Day week­end, for in­stance, I found my­self half-watch­ing his weird, weekly ver­sion of a polit­ic­al vari­ety show, when he launched in­to a ser­mon­ette about the mean­ing of the hol­i­day. He cel­eb­rated the his­tor­ic role of uni­ons as “an im­port­ant tool in pro­tect­ing work­ers from be­ing ex­ploited and en­dangered” (though he was care­ful to cast it in con­ser­vat­ive-audi­ence-friendly lan­guage, ex­plain­ing why uni­ons once were im­port­ant). He also sung the praises of profit-shar­ing and em­ploy­ee-owned com­pan­ies in a way his white, older, Chris­ti­an con­ser­vat­ive audi­ence could glom onto: “Pub­lix su­per­mar­kets are strong in the South and South­east, and I love shop­ping there, be­cause em­ploy­ees act like they’re truly grate­ful for their cus­tom­ers. It’s a cus­tom­er-fo­cused cul­ture. And Pub­lix stores are em­ploy­ee-owned. So the bet­ter the store does, the bet­ter the em­ploy­ee does.”

This was the Hucka­bee lib­er­als like me — the few, the slightly em­bar­rassed — had fallen for back in 2007. I hadn’t had much com­pany, but I hadn’t been alone. E.J. Di­onne, the lib­er­al sage of The Wash­ing­ton Post, wrote glow­ingly of “Hucka­bee the Rebel,” whose eco­nom­ic pop­u­lism was put­ting “the fear of God in­to the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment.” The New York­er‘s Hendrik Hertzberg, who found Hucka­bee “funny” and “curi­ously un­threat­en­ing,” was im­pressed by his prag­mat­ic re­cord as gov­ernor of Arkan­sas, writ­ing that “his his­tory sug­gests that he prefers con­sensus to con­front­a­tion, that he re­gards gov­ern­ment as a tool for so­cial bet­ter­ment, and that he has little taste for war, cul­tur­al or oth­er­wise.” Even as hard-core a left­ist as Cor­nel West be­came a fan after meet­ing with Hucka­bee fol­low­ing a de­bate at his­tor­ic­ally black Mor­gan State Uni­versity — an event skipped by the oth­er ma­jor Re­pub­lic­an con­tenders. “I told him, ‘You are for real,’” West re­called to then”“New York Times colum­nist Frank Rich. “Black voters in Arkan­sas” — who’d voted in un­usu­ally high num­bers for Hucka­bee — “aren’t stu­pid. They know he’s sin­cere about fight­ing ra­cism and poverty.”

(RE­LATED: Hucka­bee’s Huck­ster­ism vs. Clin­ton’s Cash

“Who Doesn’t Heart Hucka­bee?” Gail Collins de­man­ded to know in The New York Times. She got right to the crux of why some lib­er­als did: Hucka­bee was not only ex­pos­ing the fal­la­cies of trickle-down eco­nom­ics to work­ing-class Re­pub­lic­ans but also un­mask­ing the hy­po­crisy lib­er­als tend to see in Chris­ti­ans who sup­port wealth-first eco­nom­ics rather than heed­ing Je­sus’s calls to forgo riches and help the poor. “[T]he fact that as gov­ernor Hucka­bee spent a lot of time try­ing to spend money on the needy doesn’t go over all that well with the ones who be­lieve that God’s top pri­or­ity is elim­in­at­ing the es­tate tax,” Collins wrote with no small meas­ure of glee.

This lib­er­al ro­mance with a Bible-be­liev­ing South­ern Re­pub­lic­an peaked around the same time that Hucka­bee’s poll num­bers did. By late Novem­ber 2007, he’d snuck up on the lead­ing GOP con­tenders — Rudy Gi­uliani, John Mc­Cain, Fred Thompson, and Mitt Rom­ney — with an old-fash­ioned, low-money grass­roots cam­paign, and stood poised to win the Iowa caucus. Then, at a CNN/You­Tube de­bate in which oth­er can­did­ates were fiercely com­pet­ing to outdo one an­oth­er with harsh anti-im­mig­ra­tion rhet­or­ic, Hucka­bee struck “com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vat­ive” gold. Rom­ney was badger­ing him about the be­ne­fits he’d sup­por­ted for the chil­dren of il­leg­al im­mig­rants back in Arkan­sas. “In all due re­spect,” Hucka­bee said, “we’re a bet­ter coun­try than to pun­ish chil­dren for what their par­ents did.” His tone, wrote Rich, “leapt off the screen.” Re­pub­lic­ans, Rich de­cided, had found “their Obama.”

As gov­ernor of Arkan­sas, we were now learn­ing, Hucka­bee hadn’t simply talked nice talk. What his lib­er­al fan club found most be­witch­ing wasn’t just his de­li­cious jabs at Re­pub­lic­an elites — people who were “busy go­ing to up­scale, nice parties with folks who haven’t been im­pacted by the down­turn in the eco­nomy” and who were “a wholly owned sub­si­di­ary of Wall Street” — but the way he’d gov­erned for 10 and a half years. His lips of­ten said “theo­crat,” but his ac­tions in of­fice had shown a de­cidedly pro­gress­ive streak. He’d not only signed a DREAM Act; he’d de­nounced a bill to deny health ser­vices to il­leg­al im­mig­rants — floated by a fel­low Baptist min­is­ter — as “race-bait­ing” and had helped de­feat it. He’d not only de­cried ra­cial in­equit­ies in the crim­in­al-justice sys­tem but had pardoned more pris­on­ers — up­ward of 1,000 — than his three pre­de­cessors com­bined. His greatest con­ser­vat­ive apostasy, though, had been re­ject­ing Grover Nor­quist’s no-new-taxes pledge, which Re­pub­lic­ans were routinely sign­ing. Hucka­bee had raised taxes for pub­lic schools, state parks, and bet­ter high­ways. By the time he’d left of­fice, he’d been ap­plauded by Time magazine as one of the coun­try’s five best gov­ernors, pro­filed as a “Pub­lic Of­fi­cial of the Year” by Gov­ern­ing magazine, and called “the best gov­ernor in liv­ing memory” by the Arkan­sas Demo­crat-Gaz­ette.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee enters a stage in Hope, Ark., before announcing his entry in the race for the Republican presidential nomination on May 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston) AP

On the cam­paign trail, Hucka­bee ten­ded to talk about gov­ern­ment the way one might talk about a friend who’d put on a bit too much weight. (He was fam­ous back then for di­et­ing, too.) He didn’t hate it; in fact, he was call­ing on it to do quite a lot. Like pass cap-and-trade to ease car­bon pol­lu­tion. Or fund a na­tion­al high­way-build­ing pro­ject — two new lanes from Bangor to Miami — that would cre­ate jobs. Or pro­mote arts and mu­sic pro­grams in pub­lic schools, which Hucka­bee thought was es­sen­tial: “We have to change and re­form the edu­ca­tion sys­tem so that we’re cap­tur­ing both the left and right sides of the kid’s brain.” Hucka­bee was no hard-liner on for­eign policy, either: In an es­say for For­eign Af­fairs, he called for “con­tain­ing Ir­an” through ag­gress­ive dip­lomacy and cri­ti­cized the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion for not en­ga­ging Amer­ica’s en­emies enough. A good-gov­ern­ment Re­pub­lic­an and a for­eign policy real­ist! Be still our hearts.

Sure, there were naysay­ers. Not long after I sheep­ishly con­fessed my “crush” on Hucka­bee in The Na­tion, my col­league Katha Pol­litt wondered aloud in her column why “lib­er­al guys” — plus Gail Collins — seemed so smit­ten. “Is there some weird mas­ochism op­er­at­ing here,” Pol­litt asked, “whereby left-lean­ing men, weary of fail­ure and scorn, roll over for right-wing­ers who smile and throw them a bone? Does the is­sue of abor­tion — which is a mark­er for a whole range of wo­men’s is­sues — just not mat­ter to them the way it does to wo­men with the same polit­ics? Are they so des­per­ate for a can­did­ate who uses the lan­guage of ‘eco­nom­ic pop­u­lism’ — when he isn’t push­ing re­gress­ive tax­a­tion — that they’ll over­look everything else?”

(RE­LATED: Mike Hucka­bee Enters Pres­id­en­tial Race Wield­ing a Dif­fer­ent Kind of ‘Hope’

That stung a little. And it was true that “everything else” — Hucka­bee’s hide­bound views on mar­riage and abor­tion, in par­tic­u­lar — did take a good bit of over­look­ing. But we lib­er­al men­folk wer­en’t cast­ing around for someone to vote for; we were look­ing for a Re­pub­lic­an who’d preach John Ed­wards’s “Two Amer­icas” gos­pel to Re­pub­lic­ans, es­pe­cially the white work­ing class, from in­side the tent — who would en­cour­age a re­volt against eco­nom­ic policies that these folks had been vot­ing for, and suf­fer­ing from, for dec­ades. If Hucka­bee’s fire-breath­ing South­ern Bap­tism made that mes­sage more pal­at­able, well, maybe that was the only way his eco­nom­ic pop­u­lism could get a hear­ing from his fel­low con­ser­vat­ives. We took heart — tons of it — from Hucka­bee’s fam­ous de­clar­a­tion: “I’m a con­ser­vat­ive, but I’m not mad at any­body about it. I’ve learned that you don’t have to give up your own con­vic­tions. But you do need to be will­ing to have an open mind, spir­it, and heart to­ward people who are com­pletely dif­fer­ent from you.”

It helped that Hucka­bee had all the right en­emies. The con­ser­vat­ive Club for Growth, which Hucka­bee had long ago deemed the “Club for Greed,” was sat­ur­at­ing the air­waves in Iowa and South Car­o­lina with at­tacks on his “big gov­ern­ment” re­cord in Arkan­sas. Rom­ney was call­ing him “lib­er­al” so of­ten that it began to sound like a tic. The anti-im­mig­ra­tion people were see­ing red. Both George Will and Rush Limbaugh were fum­ing about his “con­ser­vat­ive apostas­ies,” while The Wall Street Journ­al snip­pily summed up his plat­form as “More God, More Gov­ern­ment.” In Na­tion­al Re­view, Jo­nah Gold­berg was la­beling Hucka­bee a “right-wing pro­gress­ive.” He did not mean it as a com­pli­ment.

It was too good to be true. Just two weeks after he’d tickled our fan­cies with that elo­quent de­fense of his im­mig­ra­tion policies in Arkan­sas, Hucka­bee rolled out the most com­pre­hens­ively anti-im­mig­ra­tion plat­form of any Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate — a plan lif­ted al­most ver­batim from a Na­tion­al Re­view art­icle by one of the coun­try’s staunchest anti-im­mig­ra­tion act­iv­ists, Mark Krikori­an of the Cen­ter for Im­mig­ra­tion Stud­ies. Hucka­bee, who’d gone from speak-your-mind up­start to the fa­vor­ite in Iowa, sud­denly had something to lose — and it showed. He in­tens­i­fied his cul­ture-war talk. He flipped and flopped on for­eign policy. He talked less about us­ing gov­ern­ment to solve prob­lems and more about a bal­anced-budget amend­ment. (He’d already giv­en in and signed Nor­quist’s tax pledge.) By the time his cam­paign petered out in March, after he’d car­ried eight states with heavy con­cen­tra­tions of evan­gel­ic­als, about all that was left of Hucka­bee the pop­u­list was his ex­quis­ite tal­ent for jab­bing at Rom­ney, that walk­ing sym­bol of all things power­ful and monied: “I want to be a pres­id­ent who re­minds you of the guy you work with, not the guy who laid you off.”

Huckabee speaks at CPAC in 2012. He is now running for president in the shadow of the brand he built between campaigns. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) Getty Images

That de­li­cious sally was enough to stop me from writ­ing a blog post apo­lo­giz­ing to Na­tion read­ers for hav­ing been duped. The fact was, I still had a weak­ness for the man. Even his watered-down pop­u­lism coun­ted as something rad­ic­al in the con­tem­por­ary GOP. I rel­ished the pro­spect of a Hucka­bee-Rom­ney show­down in 2012, which would surely bring out the plu­to­crat-bash­er in Hucka­bee and re-em­phas­ize his eco­nom­ic pop­u­lism. Or would it? After the wild zigs and zags of his 2008 cam­paign, only one thing was now crys­tal clear about Mike Hucka­bee: He was one slip­pery fel­low.

(RE­LATED: Go South, Old Man

WHAT HAD SPARKED Hucka­bee’s un­likely rise to vi­able pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate had not, of course, been the de­vi­ations from Re­pub­lic­an doc­trine that had pricked up lib­er­als’ ears. While we tender-hearted types cher­ished his re­buke to im­mig­ra­tion foes, the people who ended up vot­ing for him had been swayed by a very dif­fer­ent de­bate mo­ment. It had happened months earli­er, in June 2007 in New Hamp­shire, when Hucka­bee — who was already com­plain­ing about get­ting all the “God ques­tions” — was asked if he be­lieved in evol­u­tion. After ob­ject­ing to the ques­tion — “I’m not plan­ning on writ­ing the cur­riculum for an eighth-grade sci­ence book; I’m ask­ing for the op­por­tun­ity to be pres­id­ent of the United States” — the former gov­ernor, ticked off, launched in­to a de­fense of his faith.

“Let me be very clear,” he said. “I be­lieve there is a God. I be­lieve there is a God who was act­ive in the cre­ation pro­cess. Now, how did he do it, and when did he do it, and how long did it take? I don’t hon­estly know, and I don’t think that know­ing would make me a bet­ter or a worse pres­id­ent.” He was just get­ting go­ing. “But I’ll tell you what I can tell the coun­try. If they want a pres­id­ent who doesn’t be­lieve in God, there’s prob­ably plenty of choices. But if I’m se­lec­ted as pres­id­ent of this coun­try, they’ll have one who be­lieves in those words that God did cre­ate. And as [in] the words of Mar­tin Luth­er, ‘Here I stand. I can do no oth­er.’ And I will not take that back.”

In his cam­paign mem­oir, Do the Right Thing, Hucka­bee hap­pily re­calls the im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion. “When I fin­ished, the audi­ence burst in­to ap­plause. Frank Luntz of Fox News told me that his ‘dial-o-meters’ re­gis­ter­ing fa­vor­able re­ac­tion went off the charts, and our Web site lit up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.”

(RE­LATED: Mike Hucka­bee Thinks He Has Iowa Evan­gel­ic­als Locked Down. He’s Wrong.

This is, more or less, the Hucka­bee we know now. He had found his base, and — sur­prise — it was not a gaggle of wish­ful-think­ing East Coast lib­er­als or an un­tapped con­stitu­ency of dis­gruntled work­ing stiffs. After his first pres­id­en­tial cam­paign ended, he in­creas­ingly catered to the faith­ful. He was be­com­ing a tri­bal politi­cian, and his tribe was re­flec­ted in the stu­dio audi­ence for Hucka­bee, his prime-time Sat­urday night show on Fox: white, aging baby boomers in their “vis­it­ing the Big Apple” garb, ap­plaud­ing with po­lite ap­pre­ci­ation for Hucka­bee’s Obama­care jibes and same-sex-mar­riage doom­say­ing, chuck­ling at his Will Ro­gers”“meets”“Jerry Fal­well wit­ti­cisms, prob­ably fret­ting that their hero was get­ting a bit too racy when he picked up his axe and joined Ted Nu­gent for a grungy rendi­tion of Cat Scratch Fever. (“Make the pussy purr”? Well, all righty then!)

Huckabee's memorable jabs at Mitt Romney in the 2008 GOP debates delighted populists on both the left and right. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) AP

Hucka­bee could still startle you in a good way, though. In the run-up to what most ex­pec­ted to be his 2012 cam­paign, he lav­ished praise on Pres­id­ent Obama’s speech in Tuc­son fol­low­ing the shoot­ing of Rep. Gab­ri­elle Gif­fords. He called the birth­er move­ment “non­sense.” He set off a battle roy­ale with Glenn Beck by hail­ing Michelle Obama’s healthy-eat­ing ini­ti­at­ives. And on his show and in his books, he still flashed glim­mers of good-gov­ern­ment pop­u­lism. Even in his 2014 pander­fest, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, Hucka­bee re­peatedly nudges his ad­mirers to step back from anti-gov­ern­ment ab­so­lut­ism — when he’s not too busy tut-tut­ting at Mi­ley Cyr­us’s twerking or ac­cus­ing Jay Z of be­ing Bey­on­cé’s “pimp,” that is. (Ser­i­ously: Did you hear any­thing else about that book?) You won’t find a can­ni­er way to make a pro-reg­u­la­tion, anti-lais­sez-faire ar­gu­ment, for in­stance, than the one Hucka­bee pulls off in God, Guns, and Oth­er Al­lit­er­a­tions. After de­fend­ing Michelle Obama again, he flows in­to the sub­ject of food safety. “I real­ize some of my liber­tari­an friends would end pretty much all gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion and let the mar­ket de­cide,” he writes, “but some of us fear that by the time the ‘mar­ket’ fig­ures out that a par­tic­u­lar res­taur­ant is serving sal­mon­ella, some of us might already be dead.”

Hucka­bee was also, surely, the only politi­cian in Amer­ica who would still give a shout-out to John Ed­wards — not without a few caveats, mind you — and he even com­pared his polit­ics fa­vor­ably against those of some Re­pub­lic­ans. “Dur­ing the 2008 elec­tion cycle, the seri­al adulter­er, no­tori­ous li­ar, and all-around con man John Ed­wards spoke con­vin­cingly of ‘Two Amer­icas,’ in which one Amer­ica was blessed with prosper­ity, op­por­tun­ity, and plenty while the oth­er Amer­ica was a land of poverty, need, and help­less­ness,” Hucka­bee wrote. “Ed­wards and I would cer­tainly dis­agree as to the rem­ed­ies for this prob­lem, but he did de­scribe it well, des­pite the scorn he got from some of the finer tables at Re­pub­lic­an gath­er­ings, where they couldn’t ima­gine any­one ac­tu­ally liv­ing in poverty in the United States. They cer­tainly didn’t know any­one like that, not per­son­ally.”

But as Hucka­bee’s polit­ic­al sab­bat­ic­al wore on, the erstwhile “right-wing pro­gress­ive” was slowly, stead­ily, giv­ing way to the grim fin­ger-wag­ger of the cul­ture wars. After Hucka­bee de­clined to pick up the pop­u­list pitch­fork for a re­match with Rom­ney in 2012, his so­cial rhet­or­ic grew harsh­er. Fol­low­ing the Sandy Hook shoot­ing, he ven­tured that it was no sur­prise that Amer­ic­an schools had be­come a “place of carnage,” since “we have sys­tem­at­ic­ally re­moved God” from them. When the Su­preme Court struck down the De­fense of Mar­riage Act in 2013, Hucka­bee tweeted: “Je­sus wept.” Last year, he told the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee that Demo­crats who stood be­hind Obama­care’s re­pro­duct­ive man­date “in­sult the wo­men of Amer­ica by mak­ing them be­lieve they are help­less without Uncle Sug­ar com­ing in” to give them birth con­trol, “be­cause they can­not con­trol their li­bido or their re­pro­duct­ive sys­tem.” He in­ten­ded it as a gibe at Demo­crat­ic pa­ter­nal­ism, but main­stream Amer­ica wasn’t giv­ing Hucka­bee the be­ne­fit of the doubt any­more. He’d won his demo­graph­ic, but he’d lost the leftover ven­eer of good­will from 2008 in the pro­cess.

ON THE FIRST Sat­urday of this year, Hucka­bee made it clear that he was crank­ing up for a White House run in 2016. At the end of that week’s Hucka­bee, he told his audi­ence that he was fin­ished (for now) as a TV host. “As much as I have loved do­ing the show,” he said, “I can­not bring my­self to rule out an­oth­er pres­id­en­tial run.”

You could prac­tic­ally hear the alarm bells clanging across the small-gov­ern­ment uni­verse. Just 36 hours later, the Club for Growth fired off its ini­tial warn­ing shot, de­tail­ing Hucka­bee’s con­ser­vat­ive apostas­ies in Arkan­sas and strongly hint­ing it would spend whatever it took to en­sure that this Bible-thump­ing Marx­ist would nev­er get with­in sniff­ing dis­tance of the White House. Glenn Beck picked up his cudgel again, con­jur­ing up the ul­ti­mate in­sult for any hard-core con­ser­vat­ive: “He is Jeb Bush hid­ing be­hind the cross.” Na­tion­al Re­view‘s Quin Hilly­er re­minded folks that no less an au­thor­ity than Phyl­lis Sch­lafly had ac­cused “Tax-Hike Mike” of “des­troy­ing the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment in Arkan­sas.” “Hucka­bee thinks he can sell snake oil even to wa­ter moc­cas­ins,” Hilly­er wrote. “Neither the moc­cas­ins nor Re­pub­lic­an voters should buy what he’s selling.”

But what, ex­actly, would he be ped­dling this time? In late April, a week be­fore his cam­paign kick­off, I sat down with Hucka­bee in Wash­ing­ton — or, in Hucka­bee-speak, “The Roach Motel,” where “the roaches went in, but they nev­er left.” What, I wanted to know, was left of the good-gov­ern­ment pop­u­list? A lot, was the sur­pris­ing an­swer. Hucka­bee lit in­to Re­pub­lic­an elites and their dis­con­nect from work­ing people. He mused about how to cre­ate bet­ter job-train­ing and poverty-fight­ing pro­grams. He lamen­ted the fact that Afric­an-Amer­ic­an males now “have the highest un­em­ploy­ment rate ever in his­tory” and that work­ing-class folks across the board have con­tin­ued to get the shaft un­der Pres­id­ent Obama. “We’ve got to be more hon­est about the eco­nomy where it really is,” he said. “What has happened in our eco­nomy that has caused so much pain on the people who can least af­ford it?”

After Hucka­bee de­clined to pick up the pop­u­list pitch­fork for a re­match with Rom­ney in 2012, the so­cial rhet­or­ic grew harsh­er.

Who was this man, and what had he done with Old Test­a­ment Mike? In­come in­equal­ity, he told me, “is an im­port­ant is­sue for a faith per­son, be­cause you un­der­stand that Je­sus said more about poverty than he did about heav­en and hell. There was more about poor people in the Bible; a lot of people, either they’ve nev­er read it or nev­er as­sessed it. The way we treat the poor, or for that mat­ter the sick, or even for that mat­ter those who have com­mit­ted a crime — the man­ner in which we treat the least of these is viewed by God as the way we treat him.”

When a gaggle of Wash­ing­ton re­port­ers showed up for a roundtable in­ter­view a half hour later, Hucka­bee re­peatedly harked back to his gov­ernor­ship in Arkan­sas. For six years, most of Amer­ica had for­got­ten that he ever was any­thing but a former Baptist preach­er with a gui­tar and a bot­tom­less sup­ply of cul­ture-war quotes. Now he was tout­ing his ex­ec­ut­ive ex­per­i­ence — and mak­ing it clear that he was still a far cry from a stand­ard-is­sue anti-gov­ern­ment can­did­ate. As a gov­ernor, he said, “It’s really easy to meas­ure what you did. Did test scores go up? Did you cre­ate more jobs than you lost? What’s the per-cap­ita in­come — did it im­prove or de­cline? What kind of in­fra­struc­ture chal­lenges did you face, and what did you do to change it? A per­son can say, ‘Well, I’ll fight.’ But the ques­tion is, can you fix?” Once again, he was cast­ing him­self as the kind of con­ser­vat­ive who’d rather make gov­ern­ment work than de­fang it.

Listen­ing to him go on in this vein, I couldn’t help think­ing that maybe, just maybe, this Hucka­bee cam­paign could be as fun as the first one. But I’d been stung be­fore by such wish­ful think­ing. Per­haps this was just an­oth­er case of Hucka­bee charm­ing the “lib­er­al me­dia.” Would he sound any­thing like this back home in Hope, Arkan­sas, when he of­fi­cially launched Hucka­bee 2.0? I had my hard-won doubts.

But damned if he didn’t. Hucka­bee de­livered an un­usu­ally sol­emn and oc­ca­sion­ally elo­quent ad­dress that was light on so­cial is­sues and heavy on re­mind­ers about the good work he’d done as gov­ernor. And then, call­ing on his sneaky tal­ent for couch­ing a good-gov­ern­ment mes­sage in small-gov­ern­ment rhet­or­ic, he dropped a pop­u­list bomb straight in­to the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­at­ing pro­cess. “There are some people who pro­pose that to save the safety nets like Medi­care and So­cial Se­cur­ity, we ought to chop off pay­ments for the people who have faith­fully had their paychecks and pock­ets picked by the politi­cians, prom­ising them that their money would be wait­ing for them when they were old and sick,” he said, pok­ing that pitch­fork straight in­to the sides of en­ti­tle­ment re­formers like Marco Ru­bio and Chris Christie. “My friend, you were forced to pay for So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care. For 50 years, the gov­ern­ment grabs the money from our paychecks and says it’ll be wait­ing for us when we turn 65. If Con­gress wants to take away some­body’s re­tire­ment, let them end their own con­gres­sion­al pen­sions, not your So­cial Se­cur­ity.”

Hucka­bee didn’t stop there: He also lit in­to that oth­er sac­red Re­pub­lic­an cow, free trade, ex­cor­i­at­ing sup­port­ers of fast-track au­thor­ity for the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship. “We don’t cre­ate good jobs for Amer­ic­ans by en­ter­ing in­to un­bal­anced trade deals that forgo con­gres­sion­al scru­tiny and look­ing the oth­er way as the law is ig­nored,” Hucka­bee thundered, “so we can im­port low-wage labor, un­der­cut Amer­ic­an work­ers, and drive wages lower than the Dead Sea.”

Huckabee kicked off his 2016 effort in high populist style, touring Iowa farms and factories like the Clow Valve Company in Oskaloosa and turning up his anti-free-trade rhetoric. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) AP

The next day, Hucka­bee set off across Iowa on a “Factor­ies, Farms, and Free­dom Tour.” He rat­cheted up the pop­u­list talk, say­ing he was fed up with “Amer­ica’s work­ers get­ting punched in the gut” and “tak­ing it in the back­side” — a pretty nasty one-two com­bin­a­tion, you have to ad­mit. At the Clow Valve Com­pany in Oskaloosa, NBC News re­port­er Kasie Hunt quizzed Hucka­bee about his stance on trade; does it both­er you, she asked the former gov­ernor, that op­pos­ing the TPP “puts you to the left of Hil­lary Clin­ton”?

“You know, I don’t care,” Hucka­bee replied. “If we do an­oth­er trade deal that drives Amer­ic­an wages lower, and that isn’t mon­itored, and isn’t se­cured to be com­pletely fair in how it’s ad­min­istered, then that’s not free trade.”

Next thing you knew, Hucka­bee was telling Bloomberg News that he was also dead set against Re­pub­lic­an pro­pos­als to cur­tail (or “re­form”) So­cial Se­cur­ity dis­ab­il­ity be­ne­fits to com­bat fraud. “You nev­er want to make it so that people who are go­ing through a hard­ship are go­ing to have a worse hard­ship,” Hucka­bee said, “when they’re not only fight­ing a dis­ab­il­ity but then they’re hav­ing to fight the gov­ern­ment. Sure, you’ve got to clean up any fraud and deal with that. But to as­sume that any­one who is dis­abled is really fraud­u­lent: I think that’s an in­sult to a per­son.”

Golly, as Hucka­bee would say: This fel­low soun­ded fa­mil­i­ar! It wasn’t ex­actly the pop­u­list Hucka­bee of eight years be­fore — the quirky guy tout­ing cap-and-trade, arts and mu­sic edu­ca­tion, and a massive high­way-build­ing pro­gram. By pick­ing trade and wel­fare as his rabble-rous­ing is­sues for 2016, Hucka­bee was chal­len­ging the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment, all right — but he was also preach­ing to the choir of ac­tu­al GOP voters, whose views on those is­sues are sur­pris­ingly far to the left of the politi­cians they’ve been vot­ing for.

Sixty-two per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans told Pew poll­sters in 2013, for in­stance, that pre­serving cur­rent spend­ing levels for So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care mattered more than trim­ming the budget de­fi­cit. And what did they think about the pro­spect of an en­ti­tle­ment-cut­ting deal that was gar­ner­ing so much buzz in Wash­ing­ton at that time? Not much: Pew found that only 17 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans favored cut­ting So­cial Se­cur­ity as part of a deal. Twice as many, 35 per­cent, wanted So­cial Se­cur­ity spend­ing in­creased. And when it comes to trade? Sub­stan­tially more Re­pub­lic­ans op­pose the TPP and the pro­posed ar­range­ment with Europe, the TTIP, than Demo­crats — and when they were asked by poll­sters a few years back if free trade was bad for the eco­nomy, Re­pub­lic­ans said “yes” by a stun­ning 2-to-1 mar­gin.

In 2004, then-Gov. Huckabee (far right) presented Michelle Duggar with Arkansas's Young Mother of the Year award. (AP Photo/Mike Wintroath) AP

Hucka­bee’s pop­u­list re­viv­al had those folks — the un­heeded ma­jor­ity of Re­pub­lic­an voters — fixed squarely in its sights. And once again, lib­er­al me­dia types were rel­ish­ing his tilt­ing at the tea party’s wind­mill, though the praise now came with plenty of ob­lig­at­ory caveats. Even if Hucka­bee’s pop­u­lism was a “cyn­ic­al strategy,” Bri­an Beut­ler wrote at The New Re­pub­lic, “what mat­ters is that he’s mo­tiv­ated enough to pull back the cur­tain on the party’s double deal­ing.” Of the 2016 Hucka­bee, John Nich­ols wrote at The Na­tion: “Truth­fully, he isn’t all that much of an eco­nom­ic pop­u­list. But he is enough of one to stand out from the Wall Street”“can-do-noth­ing-wrong Re­pub­lic­ans he is run­ning against. And if the man from Arkan­sas of­fers work­ing-class evan­gel­ic­als in states such as Iowa the right com­bin­a­tion of so­cial con­ser­vat­ism and sup­port for So­cial Se­cur­ity and fair trade, he could prove that even Re­pub­lic­ans are sick of aus­ter­ity.” Hope springs etern­al in the lib­er­al breast.

TWO WEEKS AFTER Hucka­bee kicked off his cam­paign on a pop­u­list note, a head­line popped up on The Huff­ing­ton Post that surely caused a few double takes from the site’s left-lean­ing read­ers: “Mike Hucka­bee Be­comes Latest GOP Can­did­ate to Call For More Spend­ing on Sci­ence Re­search.” The can­did­ate many would auto­mat­ic­ally as­sume to be “anti-sci­ence” was join­ing Jeb Bush and Lind­sey Gra­ham to call for in­creased fund­ing for the budget-threatened Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health. It’s one of the most idio­syn­crat­ic planks on Hucka­bee’s plat­form — and NIH fund­ing is merely the tip of the ice­berg. “It’s been in­cred­ibly short­sighted for us to pull back from fo­cused and fact-driv­en sci­entif­ic re­search,” Hucka­bee writes in God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy. He’s call­ing for an all-out, JFK-takes-Amer­ica-to-space-style pro­gram to find cures for Alzheimer’s, can­cer, and heart dis­ease — not to men­tion a full-scale re­com­mit­ment to space re­search.

You might think the fact that Hucka­bee, of all people, was pro­pos­ing a New Fron­ti­er”“style ap­proach to med­ic­al and space sci­ence would count as news­worthy. But The Huff­ing­ton Post piece was picked up by ex­actly one news or­gan­iz­a­tion, the con­ser­vat­ive News­max. Hucka­bee was all over the news later that day, but it had noth­ing to do with the grand vis­ions of an act­iv­ist fed­er­al gov­ern­ment that he was spin­ning at Iowa farms, factor­ies, and Pizza Ranches. Quite the con­trary: Hucka­bee was back in the head­lines after a par­tic­u­larly mem­or­able rant about re­li­gious liber­ties that he let loose at a Fam­ily Lead­er­ship Re­gion­al Sum­mit in Ce­dar Falls.

“We are rap­idly get­ting to the place in the United States of Amer­ica where we are crim­in­al­iz­ing Chris­ti­an faith,” Hucka­bee had pro­claimed. The gov­ern­ment — you know, that same gov­ern­ment he’d been busily re­cast­ing as the friend of work­ing-class Re­pub­lic­ans — was “goose-step­ping in­to our lives” to tell us “what we can and can­not be­lieve.” And if the U.S. Su­preme Court were to join that march and leg­al­ize same-sex mar­riage this sum­mer, Hucka­bee darkly im­plied, re­li­gious con­ser­vat­ives just might have to rise up and res­ist — by un­spe­cified means — be­cause the rul­ing would not only mor­tally of­fend their val­ues; it would also be in­val­id. “The no­tion that the Su­preme Court is the su­preme branch is nowhere in the Con­sti­tu­tion,” he said. “The Su­preme Court is not the su­preme be­ing.”

Hucka­bee is still try­ing (and fail­ing) to ex­plain just what he meant by that: Was he really as­sert­ing that Chris­ti­ans could, or should, ig­nore the law of the land if it didn’t jibe with their read­ing of the Bible? For some­body who en­joys tak­ing pot­shots at liber­tari­ans for their “an­arch­ist” tend­en­cies, that would seem a bit self-con­tra­dict­ory, to say the least. But it is, of course, pure cat­nip for the me­dia. Just two weeks in­to the cam­paign, Hucka­bee’s pop­u­list mes­sage was already be­ing drowned out by a cul­ture-war con­tro­versy of his own cre­ation.

A couple of days later, Hucka­bee threw him­self smack-dab in­to the middle of an even hot­ter firestorm over the Dug­gar fam­ily, fam­ous for the TLC real­ity show 19 Kids and Count­ing. Two weeks earli­er, the Dug­gars had en­dorsed Hucka­bee and cheered his an­nounce­ment in per­son; now, after rev­el­a­tions that 27-year-old Josh Dug­gar had mo­les­ted five girls, in­clud­ing four of his sis­ters, as a teen­ager — acts that his par­ents con­cealed — Hucka­bee leapt to the fam­ily’s de­fense in a Face­book post that may haunt him till the end of his days. “Josh’s ac­tions when he was an un­der­age teen are as he de­scribed them him­self, ‘in­ex­cus­able,’” Hucka­bee wrote, “but that doesn’t mean ‘un­for­giv­able.’ He and his fam­ily dealt with it and were hon­est and open about it with the vic­tims and the au­thor­it­ies” — an as­ser­tion con­tra­dicted by the facts of the case. “Good people make mis­takes and do re­gret­table and even dis­gust­ing things,” he ad­ded.

The blow­back to his Dug­gar apo­lo­gia was fe­ro­cious, with scores of Hucka­bee’s fans tak­ing to Face­book to say he’d lost them for good. His motives were de­bat­able: Was he show­ing mis­placed but sin­cere loy­alty to his old friends? Dis­play­ing a highly se­lect­ive ver­sion of Chris­ti­an com­pas­sion for a teen­age of­fend­er? Show­ing a mind-bend­ing lack of con­cern for fe­male vic­tims? Or was he simply, cyn­ic­ally, cling­ing to the bloc of homeschool act­iv­ists who were in­stru­ment­al in his Iowa vic­tory in 2008? One thing was clear: Whatever Hucka­bee was say­ing about trade and eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity was now just back­ground noise.

Maybe this was in­ev­it­able. Between the first cam­paign and the second, after all, Hucka­bee be­came something oth­er than a former gov­ernor and pres­id­en­tial as­pir­ant: He be­came a brand. And that brand is not “work­ing-class cham­pi­on.” It’s not “sur­pris­ingly pro­gress­ive former gov­ernor.” It’s something closer to “nos­tal­gic Chris­ti­an scold.” Even if he wanted to — and it’s any­thing but clear that he does — he prob­ably couldn’t shed that brand, stamped as it is in the na­tion­al mind by all those Fox-host­ing years and the ginned-up con­tro­ver­sies he used to keep his pro­file high. Had he nev­er breathed a sol­it­ary syl­lable on the cam­paign trail about cul­tur­al is­sues, Hucka­bee would still be houn­ded by re­port­ers want­ing to hear him say something out­rageous about every fresh re­li­gious-liberty de­bate, every court de­cision on mar­riage and abor­tion, every hint of a Dug­gar or Duck Dyn­asty or Ted Nu­gent scan­dal.

It’s im­possible to run two cam­paigns at once. And that’s what Hucka­bee is try­ing to do — selling his take on eco­nom­ic pop­u­lism to work­ing-class and middle-class Re­pub­lic­ans, yet sim­ul­tan­eously fear-mon­ger­ing evan­gel­ic­al Re­pub­lic­ans in­to view­ing him as their cham­pi­on. The tar­get audi­ences have plenty of over­lap, of course. But you’d have to pos­sess al­chem­ic­al polit­ic­al skills bey­ond even Hucka­bee’s to make these two cam­paign themes blend in­to a smooth and con­vin­cing pack­age. You can’t sell hope and des­pair, or em­power­ment and vic­tim­hood, all at the same time. You can’t con­vince people to see the gov­ern­ment as their friend when you’re also telling them it’s out to ex­tin­guish the prac­tice of Chris­tian­ity.

You can hear the dis­son­ance as Hucka­bee cam­paigns: The day after his Ce­dar Falls speech, Hucka­bee was still car­ry­ing on about re­li­gious liber­ties at his first stop — “I do be­lieve there is an as­sault against the ba­sic fun­da­ment­al liber­ties of the United States that we have nev­er seen be­fore” — when he at­temp­ted an awk­ward trans­ition: Not only is the coun­try “spir­itu­ally sick,” he said, but also “eco­nom­ic­ally sick.” From there, he was off and run­ning about the loss of man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs and the evils of trade.

I feel pretty con­fid­ent in as­sert­ing that Hucka­bee is los­ing no sleep over the dis­sol­u­tion of his lib­er­al fan club. We wer­en’t ex­actly his tar­get audi­ence. But Hucka­bee once had the po­ten­tial to be a trans­form­a­tion­al fig­ure, the Chris­ti­an pop­u­list who could spark a true de­bate with­in the GOP about eco­nom­ics and the size of gov­ern­ment — and now he has painted him­self in­to a corner that prob­ably makes this im­possible. Which is a shame, if you ask this lib­er­al. It’s still the case that nobody in Amer­ic­an polit­ics can give a more power­ful, per­suas­ive pop­u­list testi­mony than Mike Hucka­bee. But who can hear it any­more?

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