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.”
“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.
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?”
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.”
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.
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.”
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 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.”
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.
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?