Remembering Happy Huckabee in an Age of Rage
“I’m a conservative, I’m just not mad about it.” Mike Huckabee’s go-to line from 2008 doesn’t seem to fit the mood of a GOP in 2016. Except, maybe it does but not even Huckabee himself saw it coming. The conventional wisdom is that the rise of the Tea Party and the long list of frustrations with President Obama have set the table for a fist-pounder to win the Republican nomination. The staying power of Donald Trump despite run-ins with Fox News, Carly Fiorina’s face and his own website seems to validate the theory. Candidates from Ted Cruz to Bobby Jindal have been working hard to demonstrate their bombastic bona fides as well. Undoubtedly, the “angry electorate” narrative has some truth behind it.
But, it’s not the whole truth. “The Donald” also comes in first when primary voters are asked who they would most like to see drop out, and Ben Carson’s candidacy of the calm waters is running neck and neck with the tempest of Trump. The rising Marco Rubio too has a tone that is more measured and optimistic. A smile may yet best the scowl.
Happy go lucky Huckabee is largely a thing of the past, though. If you’ve read his most recent campaign primer God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy (or, heck, just heard the title), then you know that he who was once the king of kindness decided months ago to double down on indignation and rally a common-sense rural us versus a godless uppity urban them. It’s the good folks of “Bubba-ville” rescuing America from the tyranny of “Bubble-ville” — those initialized centers of power and wealth, namely D.C., NYC and LA. Huckabee is grinning on the cover, but snarling in the pages. He’s come a long way from his 2008 campaign book, From Hope to Higher Ground, which was far more polite Southern gentleman than disgruntled redneck.
Huckabee could always deliver a strategic zinger when needed, but it was largely the “aw, shucks” Huck and his sincere social conservatism that endeared the former minister to voters eight years ago. Aided by his humor, bass guitar and the backing of an ironically relevant Chuck Norris, Huckabee bested the deep pocketed Mitt Romney in Iowa and burst onto the national scene. The telegenic Arkansan, who would go on to charm the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, built a reputation for winsomeness and civility even among those who would vigorously disagree with him. Roundly hailed as a “nice guy,” in the end he didn’t win but he didn’t finish last either — moving from an asterisk in the early polls to a second place finish overall.
Huckabee next took his principled congeniality to Fox News where an early show in January of 2009 featured an interview with liberal icon Mario Cuomo that was an object lesson in how to find common ground and disagree without being disagreeable. On that same episode, he also helped make joyful memories possible for 76 African-American children, surprising them with tickets to the historic inauguration of Barack Obama into the job that Huckabee had long sought. A year later, he would have the First Lady over to talk about their (then) shared passion of healthy eating. Luminaries across the political spectrum from Paul Weyrich to Cornel West wished Huckabee well. By Obama’s second term, however, the Huckster was clearly playing to the demons of resentment rather than the angels of reconciliation. “I Found a New Way to Make Liberals Mad,” was standard fare to rev up the “Like” button.
While his Main Street populism made him a target of the Club for Growth, a lot of crunchy-con types like me appreciated the old Huckabee. Back in 2008, the Governor wrote a chapter entitled “STOP Abusing Our Planet” in which the then supporter of cap and trade fondly recalled barnstorming the Arkansas River in a bass boat to convince voters to raise their sales tax 1/8 of a cent in support of conservation projects. He even penitently confessed to some past “overheated rhetoric,” saying his use of the term “environmental wackos” had “done less to encourage meaningful dialogue and more to simply stir up the passions of those who already agreed with me.” The equivalent chapter in the mirror image universe of 2016 is now called “Environmentalist Hypocrisy” and it is filled with passion stirring swings at everyone from vegans to Al Gore. Additionally, the man who lost a hundred pounds, ran a marathon and exhorted his fellow fatties to Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork has packed much of the weight back on and is proudly identifying as a resident of “Paula Deen country,” a place where the motto is “keep your cotton-pickin’ hands off our butter!”
These days, it is hard to tell who the real Huckabee was or is — whether the 2008 bridge builder who bemoaned that “name-calling is often a substitute for meaningful and thoughtful adult-level conversation” or the Trump© tie wearing rhetorical bomb thrower of today. The current mantra is that he fought the Clinton machine “and lived to tell about it,” essentially begging hearers to dredge up the murderous conspiracy theories of the 1990s.
Mad as heck Huckabee 2.0 peaked in the national Real Clear Politics average on February 1, 2014, when at 16% he (perhaps aided by some memories of his friendlier past self) commanded a slim top spot lead over now fellow under-carder Chris Christie. Double digits have not been seen since this March, and Huckabee finds himself in danger of falling off even the happy hour debate stage.
What to do? The next debate is December 15th in Nevada and may be enough of a carrot to keep him going. CNN co-sponsor Salem Radio, which specializes in conservative Christian programming, just might toss some questions into his wheelhouse. If there is no bump after that, though, the old Iowa champ will have to assess whether it behooves his legacy to press on to what could be an embarrassing final round. The wiser course might be to just try and play cornfield king-maker instead.
Of course, a lot could happen between now and then. Carson, whose actual words on social conservatism don’t always match his soothing bedside manner, could flame out completely. Or, like a good surgeon willing to adjust if the bleeding gets too bad, the political novice might conceivably shift his attention from the White House to the open Senate seat in Maryland. In either case, a good slice of Carson’s current support could well move Huckabee’s way. Still, should the odds makers in Vegas prove correct — one puts the ex-preacher now sounding of political fire and brimstone at 65 to 1 — the second coming of Mike Huckabee may soon peter to a halt. Those of us who enjoyed the first act will all just be left to wonder what might have happened had the original good natured showman been in this race from the start.
John Murdock handed out flyers at a Virginia gun show booth for Governor Huckabee in 2008 and long worked in the nation’s capital as a natural resources attorney. Today, he writes for outlets such as First Things, Front Porch Republic and The Stream from an ancestral farm house in his native Texas. His online outpost is johnmurdock.org.