Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee officially ended his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination last week. He conceded in Texas, fitting in a race that never cultivated its Arkansas roots. Huckabee had a small campaign headquarters here, but never had a major public event and raised meager funds from Arkies.
So what, then, did Huckabee accomplish, presuming he's not to be John McCain's running mate?
The race made him far better known nationally, both for good and ill. A number of commentators, for example, have tabbed Huckabee as the next commanding voice for the party's stone evangelicals. He didn't dominate this sector of voters, but he energized many of them, as fervent Christian witness on his campaign blog attests.
That fervor, however, contributed to the making of a one-dimensional candidate, a funnier and less threatening version of political preachers Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. To hear him talk, you'd have thought the election was mostly about the evils of abortion and gay people, plus a lower tax burden for rich people.
In 2008, Republican voters signaled that war and security were more important than the New Testament, gay bashing and tax cuts. If the religious wing returns to power, Huckaee might be well positioned. But I still think he was better fixed where he began — as an economic populist who didn't always wear his religiosity on his sleeve. The country is growing more secular. It is even growing more tolerant of gay people. Combine that with Huckabee's radical pronouncements on evolution and other religious topics and you can argue that Huckabee hurt himself in the long run.
Huckabee also repudiated his friendliness to immigrants and worthwhile taxes. This converted no enemies but demonstrated his inconstancy.
As ever, Huckabee often needed an editor. Given 15 valuable minutes on national TV in Texas, he meandered over George Brett, Isaiah, the Apostle Paul and Col. William Travis. Commentators from the serious, Josh Marshall, to the silly, Jon Stewart, made sport of this painful exit.
His humor cut both ways, repeatedly. Having a washed-up action film star and a pro rassler as wingmen won lots of attention. But did it illustrate presidential gravitas?
Telling was a comment by Evan Smith, writing in Texas Monthly about the magazine's tentative decision to put Huckabee on the magazine cover. “Then he lost South Carolina to the suddenly reanimated McCain. But not before comparing homosexuality to barnyard nooky, arguing for a merge-purge between the Bible and the Constitution and threatening to shove a flagpole up the bum of anyone who opposed flying the Confederate flag. We may have been right all these years about Arkansas.”
It's easy to say Huckabee won a place as the new leader of the Religious Right, but it might not be so easy to achieve. There are many pretenders (see James Dobson) and they enjoy power bases. Pat Robertson has a broadcasting empire. The late Jerry Falwell had a megachurch, a TV ministry and a university.
Huckabee can't even count on Ouachita Baptist University for much more than a part-time paycheck. Plans for a grander Huckabee-led institute there were scaled back. Huckabee failed to raise the necessary capital. He'll still have his speaking fees. But there's a big mortgage, cars and a family that, for the last few months, has been on his campaign payroll. Each day removed from the campaign trail is day farther removed from the country's collective memory. He just might have to get a real job.