Huck and the Raft

Illustration by André Carrilho

Michael Dale Huckabee is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Republican Party: He don’t get no respect. In poll after poll, the former Arkansas governor turned Fox News pundit rates as the most popular conservative public figure in the country. In December, a national Reuters Ipsos survey ranked him ahead, in ascending order, of Rush Limbaugh, Tim Pawlenty, Glenn Beck, Haley Barbour, and Mitt Romney—as well as Barack Obama and David Petraeus—in terms of his net favorability rating. (The only person ahead of Huckabee? Hillary Clinton.)

More recently, an array of polls of Republican voters have put him at or near the top of the heap among potential GOP presidential candidates. Privately, several of Obama’s top political advisers believe Huckabee would be the toughest opponent for their boss. And yet most professional Republicans dismiss him, deride him, or, most damning of all, simply ignore him.

Huckabee is well aware of all this, and it irks him no end. When people say, as I have done myself, that Romney is the de facto front-runner because he finished second to John McCain in 2008, Huckabee blows a fuse. “I say, ‘Excuse me? Can you add? How high can you count?’ ” he fumes. (Although Romney won more states and more votes, Huckabee secured more delegates.) When others opine, as I have also done myself, that Huckabee’s flirtation with running again is pure Kabuki—that he is far too cosseted, contented, and well compensated now to give up private life for the rigors of a return to the campaign trail—he insists that we are wrong. “I am very seriously considering it,” he declares emphatically.

The truth is, there are good reasons to believe that Huckabee, in the end, will decline to run—and in so doing will shape the Republican race almost as much as if he gets in. What interests me more than the implications of his decision, however, is the reasoning behind it, the factors he is weighing, and what his thinking says about the state of the GOP heading into 2012.

I had breakfast with Huckabee not long ago at the Renaissance Hotel on Seventh Avenue in midtown, where he spends three days a week in the service of his Fox gig and is treated by the staff as a kind of southern-fried Norm from Cheers. (That a former Baptist minister considers Times Square his home away from home is ironic on several levels, none of them lost on Parson Mike.) He was just back from a two-week trip to Israel and about to embark on a national tour in support of his new book, A Simple Government. “Republicans have been somewhat justly criticized for not having more specific ideas,” he said. “I felt maybe there was a need to present some of them in a way that was not written for academics. This book was not designed so it would be a textbook at Harvard.”

If a syllabus-free future was what Huck intended for A Simple Government, he can rest easy; its nonsensical subtitle alone—Twelve Things We Really Need From Washington (And a Trillion That We Don’t!)—should guarantee that it won’t be seen in Cambridge anytime soon. Less clear is whether the book will achieve another of its objectives. As with Huckabee’s grievances over being discounted as a political force, he believes his policy chops have been unfairly underrated. “People think I’m an idiot,” he says. “ ‘Oh, he’s an aw-shucks guy, he’s just a lightweight, he doesn’t have any deep thoughts.’ ” With A Simple Government—in which he takes on every topic from health care to immigration to national security—Huckabee hopes to put an end to that.

Despite the effort to burnish his reputation as a man of substance, Huckabee claims that A Simple Government is not is a pre-campaign book. But it is littered with passages that adamantly suggest the contrary. There are two full pages dedicated to trashing the health-care plan Romney implemented as governor of Massachusetts—and tying it tightly to the one Obama passed into law at the federal level. And though Huckabee asserts in his introduction that he doesn’t “doubt for a minute that Barack Obama loves our country and wants to make it better,” this ostensible graciousness evaporates in the chapters that follow. “Among nations that are traditionally anti-American, President Obama still enjoys high approval ratings,” Huckabee writes at one point. “Why am I not surprised?”

And yet, for all this, the prevailing view remains in political circles that the author will stand down in 2012. The reasoning behind this view boils down to two factors, both revolving around money. First, that Huckabee could never raise enough to be a plausible contender. And second, that Huckabee—who is building a multi-million-dollar, 8,224-square-foot mansion in Florida—won’t be willing (or can’t afford) to part with the fat paychecks he is pulling in from Fox, the lecture circuit, and various travel-related ventures. (His trip to Israel was a for-profit venture, in which he played tour guide to 180 travelers, and he is hosting an Alaskan cruise in June.)

Huckabee makes no effort whatsoever to deny either source of doubt. His love for his newly comfortable lifestyle is evident: “My wife and I grew up dirt poor, and honestly, this is beyond our wildest expectations. We are building our dream house! And look, I know what it’s like to be broke. When I ran before, I cashed in my annuities, my retirement plan, my life insurance. And I’m getting to an age where I can’t keep cashing in everything; I don’t want to be a government ward at the age of 74.”

Nor is Huckabee under any illusions about his prowess as a fund-raiser. “If I do it, I’ve gotta find people who are willing to raise the money for me, and that won’t be easy,” he says. “And I’m not going to run again on a shoestring like I did before.”

You might find it strange that the Republican runner-up from 2008 would find the prospect of financing a 2012 bid so daunting. But Huckabee’s out-front populism last time, including his famous denunciations of the Club for Growth as the “club for greed,” earned him few friends in the realm of big-dollar conservatives. And for all the grassroots energy that the tea party is providing to the GOP right now, the party Establishment still reigns when it comes to the raising of campaign cash—and little that Huckabee has done since 2008 has improved his standing there.

Equally striking is that while Huckabee is too populist for Republican regulars, he may be insufficiently right-wing for the most ginned-up segment of the party. When I ask him, for example, if he has any doubts about where Obama was born, he mournfully shakes his head. “No,” he says. “I think that talk is absurd. We need to be dealing with his policies, not his birthplace.”

Beyond questions of money, this last consideration—the dynamics that will be in play in the Republican nomination contest—is what is weighing most heavily on Huckabee’s mind. “I think I would have the best chance in the general election, because I offer the most distinct but not rancorous contrast against Obama,” he says. “But the Republican primary, I’m trying to figure out where it goes this time. If it’s going to be a search for a problem-solving pragmatist communicating kind of guy, that’s one thing. But if it’s going to be a purity contest of who’s the most gun-loving, the most anti-immigrant, the most pro-life, the most everything, it gets ridiculous.”

This is indeed the central question about the 2012 contest on the Republican side, and at the moment, the answer is still unclear. As everyone and their mother has observed, the GOP field remains utterly unformed, still more a game of guesswork and speculation than a thing to be gauged with certainty or precision. What’s clear, however, is that Huckabee suspects that a hard-core purity contest is more likely to unfold than it has in Republican nomination races of the past—and that if he decides to forgo a run, it will have enormous implications. Having carried the Iowa caucuses last time around, Huckabee would be the odds-on favorite to pull off a repeat. But with Huckabee out, Iowa would be wide open, thus making it more likely that the state could prove a launching pad for the likes of Pawlenty, Barbour, or Newt Gingrich.

In other words, there will not be much weeping among Republicans should Huckabee choose to stay on the sidelines. (In Romneyville, there will be a standing o.) Yet if Republicans are thoughtful—a big if, I am aware—they will at least take a moment to ponder the less than heartening connotations of that decision. What does it say about a national party when its most broadly popular figure cannot locate the mainstream support to justify a run for president? And what does it say about a conservative party when Mike Huckabee—Mike Huckabee!—is considered, and considers himself, too moderate to win? These questions answer ­themselves.


Huck and the Raft