MANCHESTER, N.H.—“I love Grand Funk!” Mike Huckabee tells Mary Ann Shakir at her home, overlooking the White Mountain National Forest. “They’re nice guys, and we got to know them.”
In style and substance, Huckabee is a different kind of Republican. As local GOP activists gather in the living room, the former governor of Arkansas remains on the patio with his hosts, discussing his own band, Capitol Offense, and how they opened for Willie Nelson. He tells Mary that he noticed her impressive audio equipment and just has to hear it before he leaves. He’s smiling and insistent. She is happy to comply. After all, Mike Huckabee has played Red Rocks.
His skills as a retail politician are formidable: “Hey, I remember you. You had that gallon of syrup when we first met about a year ago.” He moves easily around a room and stands so close to his admirers that he has to tilt his head down—a gesture of intimacy. A civil libertarian asks whether the presidency is becoming an emperorship. “That would be bad”—he pauses for effect—“even if it was me.”
There’s little chance of that: Huckabee registers just single digits in national polls. But he is having the best week of his campaign. Though he was outspent by his rivals, he finished a strong second in the Iowa Straw Poll. The New York Times praised his sense of humor. National Revieweditor Rich Lowry called on Sam Brownback, who competes for the same socially conservative voters, to drop out of the race. A thousand new donors opened their wallets.
Even if Republicans don’t select Huckabee as their nominee, his likability, his Southern base, and his credibility among social conservatives make him an attractive veep choice for both Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney.
Whether he’s on the stump or in a living room, Mike Huckabee says the same thing: “I’m a conservative, but I’m not mad at anybody over it.” For a general campaign, in which he’d have to appeal to independents, it’s a smart line. But when Huckabee uses it in Republican-only crowds, it sounds nicer-than-thou. He probably is.
Having the same hometown and résumé as Bill Clinton allows Huckabee to reel off funny lines like “Give Hope a second chance.” But these quips aren’t just calculated to boost his favorability ratings. His campaign is about uplift. All presidential candidates want to improve the nation’s economy or enhance its security. Mike Huckabee goes beyond that: he doesn’t just want to improve policies, he wants to transform the attitudes that inform them.
Huckabee spent his early adult life in the communications business. At 21, he became director of a Christian advertising agency in Texas. By 25, he moved back to Hope, making his living by ghostwriting books, designing church publications, and writing ads.
By chance or design, he was asked to speak at a Baptist church in Pine Bluff, where the pastor had resigned. Speaking led to an interim position and later a full-time ministry. After six years in Pine Bluff, Huckabee took the top job at the Beech Street First Baptist Church of Texarkana.
He always nursed political ambitions, however, and after a failed run for Arkansas’s top seat became only the second Republican since Reconstruction to hold the office of lieutenant governor. In 1996, after Gov. Jim Tucker was convicted of a felony related to the Whitewater scandal, he became governor and won re-election two years later. He still jokes that the most feared words in Arkansas politics are “Will the defendant please rise.”
Now Huckabee is betting his electoral fortunes on the hope that conservatives dissatisfied with the top tier will rally to him, but he is not a typical right-winger. The primary accomplishment he touts in his stump speech is ARKids First, a state-run health insurance program for children and a prototype of S-CHIP. He styles himself a “Main Street Republican, not a Wall Street Republican,” lamenting that his party defends $100-million CEO bonuses while workers contend with busted pensions and outsourcing. He recounts meeting men who lost their manufacturing jobs in Iowa, one of whom worked extra shifts to pay his daughter’s tuition. While this may sound like a foreign language to the GOP’s investor class, it’s a rhetorical appeal that helped socially conservative Pat Buchanan win the independent Granite State in 1996.
Though Huckabee makes clear that his sympathies lie with the middle class, his policy prescriptions are harder to divine. On trade, he says he is a “free trader”—as long as free trade is fair. He recommends “forc[ing] the Chinese and others to abide by the same types of standards that our American companies have to abide by in manufacturing.” But he stops short of saying exactly how he would accomplish this. Reihan Salam, co-author of the forthcoming Sam’s Club Republicans, praises Huckabee for possessing “the right instincts,” but concedes that he “hasn’t betrayed any great sophistication in his understanding of policy issues.”
When it comes to foreign affairs, Huckabee still supports the Iraq War and the surge strategy, but has left himself plenty of room to maneuver. He frames the struggle with Islamic terrorism as a “theological war” That pleased some hawks in the Shakir family’s living room. “He’s not afraid to name the enemy,” one remarked.
But when asked how he plans to fight a theological war with the American military, Huckabee eschews apocalyptic talk for a more modest vision: “Some people think the options are ‘shock and awe’—heavy military option—or ‘cut and run’—just go home. But the third option is more like ‘snatch and grab.’ It’s when you identify the targets through good intelligence and sourcing it out. And then you surgically strike those targets.” E.J. Dionne observed, “If Republicans want a conservative nominee who has never attacked Bush on Iraq but can still signal a change in direction, Huckabee could be their man.”
While conservatives may prefer a pragmatic populist and a candidate willing to shift the foreign-policy debate, Huckabee’s position on immigration could sink him. He insists his “number one priority is to have a secure border” and gets applause for saying “we have too many people living here illegally, and it must stop,” but his top concern seems to be what’s in the hearts of immigration reformers.
“I think a leader reflects the attitude of the people and can help shape it,” he says. “If the leader is angry and hostile and xenophobic and comes across with harsh and divisive statements, that is going to be … developed in the population.” He remains vague about how he would handle the millions of illegal immigrants in the country, only citing his wish for some pathway to citizenship. His ultimate guide for thinking about illegal immigrants, he says, is the golden rule. In his book From Hope to Higher Ground, he writes, “I truly hope that we will ultimately govern not just on what the law is, but what it should be.”
Huckabee’s policy naiveté, and his willingness to label as “unholy flames of racism” what most see as vigorous and honest disagreement, signal that he is a sort of character wonk—more concerned with the morality of the citizenry than with the laws that govern them. Unlike Obama or Bush before him, Huckabee asks us not only to rise above partisanship but to rise above ourselves.
This is a vision of the executive as “Uplifter in Chief,” the role Huckabee seems most anxious to play: “The president of the United States ought to lead Americans to think the best, be the best and act the best. We ought not pander to the lowest common denominator of thought.” It’s a message alternately inspiring in its aspirations and smug in its condescension.
On Sunday, Huckabee ambles into the Manchester First Assembly Church to deliver a message about the nation’s families. “How will the next generation learn to make a family work, if today, none of us are making a family work?” he asks. He defines “family” in such a way as to rule out gay marriage and abortion, but he never mentions politics. Instead, he exhorts the congregation to consider a definition of love that is an act of the will, not a flight of emotion. He tells about an ex-pastor taking care of his Alzheimer’s afflicted wife—how he tenderly talked to her and fed her each meal, every day for years after she had ceased to recognize him. As he finishes and heads out for his next engagement, there are few dry eyes. The governor never asked for votes. He didn’t have to.
At the house party the night before, Huckabee had gotten his wish. Ray Shakir turned up the stereo and shouted, “This is the governor’s request.” Mick Jagger’s voice burst through the room: “Oh, a storm is threat’ning my very life today. If I don’t get some shelter, oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away.” A music teacher moved awkwardly to the music. Some of the older guests grimaced.
As the governor’s entourage prepared to take him back to Manchester, a man waited until I, the reporter, had walked well out of earshot. He asked something, and the candidate nodded. Then the man put his arms around Huckabee’s neck and prayed with him. For what, I couldn’t tell. In the room, I had spoken with super-hawks, populists, Bush-loyalists, Bush-haters, and pro-lifers—all the impulses in the Republican coalition struggling with each other and themselves. Over the valley, a lyric faintly echoed, “War, children, it’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away…”
Their heads bowed, the two took turns talking to God. Huckabee had started something, at least in one man’s conscience. He looked satisfied. .
September 10, 2007 Issue