Mike Huckabee, the Once-Popular Populist

By
US-VOTE-IOWA-CAUCUS
Participating in a prayer circle before speaking.Photo: JIM WATSON

WEST DES MOINES — As we all wait for Mike Huckabee and “special guest” Chuck Grassley to show up for an eve-of-the-caucus event at a coffee shop here in Iowa, the talk is mostly about the weather: Will it keep campaign and media people from getting out of the state on Tuesday? Unlike, say, the Hillary Clinton rally at Lincoln High in Southside Des Moines tonight, or the Ted Cruz rally out at the state fairgrounds a bit later, there are no concerns about getting in the door or finding a seat. Parking was no more of a problem than it ever is in the Valley Junction retail-and-arts complex, and even the coffee line was short. That’s the way it goes for a candidate tied for a distant seventh in the final Des Moines Register poll. Unlike some of the other bottom-feeders, however, Huck doesn’t have the money to move on to New Hampshire. He’s publicly said he’ll pack it in if he doesn’t finish in the top three here. That’s currently as far away as the presidency of East Timor. So the end is very near.

I’ve talked to a couple of Huckabee volunteers from Arkansas, who have been on the long road with him (they actually have known him — originally as their pastor — for thirty years) and are understandably ready to bring this stage of Huck’s political career to a merciful end. It’s a bit sad for two reasons. The first is that he was the runaway winner in the caucuses eight years ago. The second is that he did everything he could to position himself as a “populist” candidate with strong conservative evangelical support this time around. But then Donald Trump showed up and ate half his lunch while Ted Cruz ate the other half.

So here he is, accompanied by Senator Chuck Grassley, who is running out the string of ecumenical appearances he agreed to after he shocked Iowans by introducing Donald Trump at one of the tycoon’s rallies.

Image
The assembled Huckabee supporters at Inspired Grounds coffee shop in West Des Moines.Photo: JIM WATSON

The crowd’s actually respectable, which may reflect a residual affection for Huck, or perhaps just the ancient advance-staff wisdom of always choosing a venue smaller than what you you need.

Huck was introduced by Arkansas attorney general Leslie Rutledge, who went biblical right off the bat, comparing her candidate to the prophet Nehemiah and not providing any hint that she expected anything other than total victory tomorrow. Huck does a nice tribute to Grassley, and the crowd’s sufficiently green or nonlocal enough to get a belly laugh out of the old saw about calling campaigning in all 99 Iowa counties “the full Grassley.” In keeping with the idea that there’s something at stake in the caucuses, Huck goes indirectly after Ted Cruz — he who ate the conservative-evangelical half of Huckabee’s lunch — for messing with Grassley’s accomplishments in subsidizing ethanol.

Image
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Iowa Senator Chuck GrassleyPhoto: JIM WATSON

Grassley (who has indicated he is running for a seventh Senate term this November) does a standard-brand GOP speech attacking Obama, and reminds people Iowa is a general-election battleground state. By way of turning the mike back over to Huck, the very senior senator rambled through shout-outs to the Second Amendment and the anti-choice cause. But they love him here.

Huck begins with a random attack on “east coast pollsters” who presumably underestimated him; unfortunately, he cannot so easily dismiss Iowan Ann Selzer. He then thanks two very-former right-wing elected officials, Duncan Hunter of California and André Bauer of South Carolina. Then he climbs into the wayback machine and starts thanking the Arkansans who have been with him forever. But his voice doesn’t quaver, and he moved right along to let the crowd know his campaign is sponsoring a special showing of the upcoming Christian-Right cinematic classic, God’s Not Dead II.

Indeed, Huck gets the room fired up by citing an extremely vague prediction by Iowa governor Terry Branstad that Huckabee might “surprise people” at the caucuses (anything over 5 percent would be a big surprise indeed). And then he’s into his stock speech, executing another drive-by on Ted Cruz as a “freshman senator who’s never accomplished a thing.” In another example of how he’s just running for the wrong gig at the wrong time, he offers a paean to the power of sweet reasonableness and good government.

With a final tribute to God and to the crowd, whose hands he says he trusts to implement the divine will, he cuts it short, exactly a half-hour after the event formally began.

I don’t know if Mike Huckabee has a cabinet position in his future (he’s probably too poor for an ambassadorship) or if I’ve just watched his political valediction, but he, like everyone else here, is almost certainly watching the weather for a quick departure Tuesday morning.