MEETING AND GREETING: The governor makes the political rounds.
Is Gov. Mike Huckabee running for president? Not officially. Is he acting like a presidential candidate? Absolutely.
For months he has been raising his national profile, traveling around the country to deliver speeches and promote his latest book, “Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork.” He assumed the chairmanship of the National Governors Association this summer, lending credibility to his presidential ambitions because Bill Clinton held the same position on his way to the White House. Even his recent performance as an able manager of relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina gave him additional exposure and burnished his leadership credentials.
If there were any lingering doubts about Huckabee’s intentions, they were erased last Friday, when he confirmed that he is definitely considering a presidential run and will announce his decision about a year from now. He said this in Des Moines, Iowa, where he addressed some Republican party gatherings. Only three weeks earlier he spent the day in New Hampshire attending a series of political events. Both trips were paid for by one of Huckabee’s growing assortment of political action committees (PACs), and they were designed to introduce him to voters in the nation’s earliest and most prominent presidential primaries.
And why not? There is no good reason for Huckabee not to take a shot at the highest elected office in the land. The presidency will be an open seat in 2008, and with Vice President Dick Cheney already out of the race, the Republican field is wide open. Huckabee is currently the longest-serving governor in the nation, and most of his potential rivals are U.S. senators, who are historically disadvantaged in White House contests. (The last two presidents elected directly from the U.S. Senate were John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Warren G. Harding in 1920.)
Plus, term limits will force Huckabee to vacate his office in January 2007, and he does not have an obvious post-political career plan. He has been a Baptist preacher, but he has not expressed an interest in returning to the pulpit. His experience in radio could serve him well if he decided to become a media commentator, or he might start a conservative think tank at Ouachita Baptist University, his alma mater, to name one other speculative scenario. But if Huckabee ever wanted to try his hand at a national campaign, this is a perfect time.
Huckabee’s most notable disadvantage is that he is relatively unknown outside of Arkansas, unlike some of the other possible Republican candidates, like U.S. Sen. John McCain and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. The biggest newspaper in New Hampshire, the Union Leader, recently included Huckabee in a poll gauging presidential primary support but got his first name wrong, calling him “Mark.”
That is why Huckabee is spending so much time outside of Arkansas and aggressively courting the national media. (On his way to New Hampshire he squeezed in an appearance on Bill Maher’s HBO talk show, forcing an overnight coast-to-coast flight from Los Angeles.) Celebrity and name recognition are valuable currencies in politics, and he is rapidly building both.
His primary attention-getter is his own personal weight-loss story. After being diagnosed with diabetes in 2003, the governor lost 105 pounds, attributing his success to a UAMS-prescribed regimen of diet and exercise. Huckabee has turned his physical transformation into a cottage industry of publicity, extracting a book from his experience, running the Little Rock Marathon and generally holding himself up as an example to follow.
He also touts his public health initiatives when he talks about his weight loss, which gives Huckabee a natural policy platform to discuss when reporters come calling to look at his before-and-after photos. Nearly every article about Huckabee that has appeared in major newspapers and magazines over the last few months — from the New York Times to Newsweek to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call — has adhered to the same formula. This passage from the July 11 edition of USA Today is typical:
Since June 2003, the [then 49]-year-old Arkansas governor has undergone a jaw-dropping metamorphosis: He’s trimmed 105 pounds off his 5-foot, 11-inch frame. As a tale of personal transformation, that would be remarkable enough. But Huckabee isn’t satisfied with his individual accomplishment. He’s trying to turn it into a public health crusade.
Last month, Huckabee unveiled the “Healthy Arkansas” initiative and said he intends to make it a top priority of his final two years as governor. His goal: to turn around a state that perennially ranks as one of the unhealthiest in the country by getting his citizens to exercise more, watch their weight and quit smoking. According to figures compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 8 percent of Arkansans suffer from diabetes; nearly 22 percent are considered obese and 26 percent smoke.
Huckabee easily transferred many of the provisions of the “Healthy Arkansas” program to a “Healthy America” initiative that will be the centerpiece of his agenda as chairman of the National Governors Association. He also created the Healthy America PAC, which was registered under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code, allowing Huckabee to raise unlimited amounts of money and distribute it to state-level candidates and state party organizations — as long as Huckabee does not declare himself a candidate for federal elected office.
That is one reason why it is not in Huckabee’s interest to formally announce his intention to join the presidential sweepstakes. It also raises ethical considerations, since Huckabee can accept financial contributions of unlimited size through his PAC while making an obvious flirtation with a White House run.
Envelope-testing financial arrangements, kept as private as the law allows, wouldn’t be new in Huckabee’s political career. Such past episodes top a list of vulnerabilities that would be exposed if he ran for president.
When Huckabee was lieutenant governor in 1994, he helped incorporate Action America, an organization that seemed to exist only to provide an additional source of income for him, mostly shielded from prying eyes. Donors could contribute to Action America without being subject to campaign limits and disclosure requirements. Huckabee subsequently received $61,500 during the corporation’s 2-1/2-year existence, for delivering speeches at Action America events.
Huckabee was sued in 1998 for improperly accepting gifts and misusing a $60,000 Governor’s Mansion account for personal expenditures. The Arkansas Times obtained internal documents and other evidence of Huckabee’s use of public money for personal expenses. To his embarrassment, lists of Huckabee’s gifts were printed in Arkansas newspapers, including $70,000 worth of furniture from a single political supporter in Leachville. (Huckabee eventually was forced to disavow the furniture as his, because of legal complications.) A lawsuit over Mansion practices was settled without Huckabee admitting wrongdoing.
Only two weeks ago, a legislative audit discovered several more questionable practices associated with the Governor’s Mansion, some of which concerned the private association created to raise money for Mansion improvements. The audit report noted the close relationship between the association and mansion administrators, calling it “constitutionally suspect.”
Another issue sure to come up if Huckabee contends for national office is his involvement in the 1999 parole of rapist Wayne Dumond, who went on to murder a woman in Missouri. A 2002 cover story in the Arkansas Times detailed Huckabee’s personal intervention in the Post Prison Transfer Board’s deliberations about Dumond’s release. Huckabee supported Dumond after being influenced by conservative activists who said Dumond got a raw deal because his victim was a distant cousin of Bill Clinton.
Huckabee has other weaknesses that are less tangible but not insignificant. He can be glib and overconfident in his unscripted public comments, such as when he referred to Arkansas as a “banana republic” on a national radio talk show in 2000. His wife, Janet, has had her ups and downs, but the one public referendum on her wasn’t encouraging. She suffered a 62-38 percent defeat in the 2002 election for secretary of state. She is a force of personality in her own right, a genuine outdoorswoman comfortable in camouflage and the duck blind — think of her as the red-state version of Hillary Rodham Clinton or Teresa Heinz Kerry.
And that is one indication of an image the Huckabees cultivate, or wear naturally. They lived in a triple-wide trailer during a renovation of the Governor’s Mansion and renewed their vows in a covenant marriage ceremony reminiscent of a Moonie event. Their ability to connect with everyday Arkansans has been a key to Mike Huckabee’s political success. The question yet to be answered is how that will play in other parts of the nation.
To supporters of Huckabee’s presidential ambitions (whose public presence is mainly confined to several blogs touting his candidacy), his Southern roots are among his primary strengths. They note the recent success of Southern politicians in national contests and argue that the kind of retail political skills that work here are just as effective across America. Just look at Bill Clinton, they say.
In fact, Huckabee is benefiting from the constant comparisons to Clinton, which is ironic considering Huckabee frequently has criticized the former president (and does a widely admired imitation of Clinton), who in turn has campaigned for Huckabee’s opponents. But Huckabee and Clinton share the same hometown, which is a great help to national headline writers. (“The Next Man From Hope” has already had a good workout.) Clinton’s success leads national journalists and opinion-makers to take an Arkansas governor more seriously than they might otherwise. And Clinton even shared his considerable media spotlight with Huckabee in May to promote an initiative to fight childhood obesity.
Here, as on most other issues, Huckabee is trying to achieve a tricky balance. The association with Clinton helps show he is in the mainstream, but he must be careful not to upset conservative Republicans, who view Clinton with disgust.
As he looks toward appealing to a national electorate, Huckabee seems to be working hard this year to move toward the political center while still holding on to the conservative credentials he needs to brandish in a Republican primary.
Being a former Baptist preacher helps solidify his standing among right-wing Republicans on religion and social issues. He supports gun rights and covenant marriage (Arkansas is one of only three states that offers the stricter option) and opposes gay marriage and abortion rights.
At the same time, Huckabee recently has carved out more moderate positions on immigration and education. He opposed a bill introduced this year in the Arkansas legislature that would deny state benefits to undocumented immigrants, on the grounds that it violated the spirit of Christianity. “I drink a different kind of Jesus juice,” Huckabee said in reference to the bill’s right-wing sponsor. Huckabee supported another bill that would have allowed the undocumented high school graduates to qualify for in-state tuition and scholarships.
He has advocated consolidation of public schools in Arkansas, a progressive position that sparked outrage in rural communities. And just last month he announced his opposition to school vouchers. He said he was more concerned about government control of parochial schools than the loss of tax dollars to public schools.
On his signature issue, health care, Huckabee has been credited with innovative public health strategies to curb childhood obesity and reduce the use of tobacco. He was a strong advocate of ARKids First, a program adopted by the legislature that expanded health insurance coverage for children of lower-income parents.
When it comes to fiscal policy, however, Huckabee is all over the map. He proclaims his fierce opposition to taxing and spending, of course, saying in his official biography that he “pushed through the Arkansas legislature the first major, broad-based tax cuts in state history” and “led efforts to establish a Property Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights.” Yet he has raised taxes several times during his tenure as governor, and once defended himself by saying, “What do our critics want — to rip the feeding tubes out of an 8-year-old or an elderly person on Medicaid?”
It looks like Huckabee is going to continue to try to walk this tightrope as he takes his campaigning national. During an appearance in Iowa last week, Huckabee would not say that he supported cutting taxes. Instead he announced his opposition to raising them. “I think the key right now is to prevent taxes from going up,” he said.
But by trying to please everyone, will Huckabee please no one? Will moderates who like his positions on health care and education be turned off by his uncompromising social conservatism? Will conservatives who like his stance on faith issues be disgusted with his fiscal record and tolerance of undocumented immigrants?
In one indication of the difficulty of achieving this balance, Paul Weyrich, the chairman and CEO of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, noted in a 2003 essay that he liked most of Huckabee’s social policies, citing a few favorites:
The governor protected the right of parents to home school their children. He signed the ban on partial birth abortions. He hosted three conferences on the family, signed legislation outlawing same sex marriage. ... He has implemented a successful abstinence program in Arkansas, and signed an act defining the fetus as a person in the Arkansas criminal code. He signed a bill to allow judges to require divorcing parents to attend a class to learn about the effects of divorce on children, passed the nation’s third covenant marriage law, and passed a woman’s “right to know” bill, ensuring that women are fully informed before choosing an abortion. ... Gov. Huckabee signed legislation to allow issuance of the “Choose Life” license plate, and to require abortion providers to allow women to see an ultrasound if one is performed. He also put his name on bills that would ban the cloning of human beings, guarantee food and hydration for the terminally ill and those patients who are in nursing homes. ... If that is not enough, he also signed bills to keep pornography out of the reach of children, and to provide special education funding for home schooled students.
But despite Huckabee’s dazzling record of accomplishment in service to the faith-driven conservative cause, Weyrich couldn’t forgive him for his dereliction of duty on fiscal issues:
Gov. Huckabee has increased spending by $4.61 billion. That is an increase of 65.3 percent, or 7.4 percent annually. This is three times the rate of inflation. The rate far exceeded the growth of personal income and economic growth in the state. Worse yet, spending outpaced revenue growth by $1.4 billion and that was the reason for the state’s significant fiscal shortfall. How did Gov. Huckabee propose to make up the difference? ... He sought an income tax surcharge. He sought huge tax hikes on cigarettes, and a whole raft of other tax increases. A spokesman for Americans for Tax Reform, a group which rates the states on their tax and spending policies, has three categories for governors: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. “Huckabee’s tax and spending policies are ugly,” the ATR spokesman said. That’s not the only critical review. Tim Carney, reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report, delivered a cutting analysis of Huckabee’s record in National Review Online last month, accusing the governor as one who “looks more like a Bill Clinton for the new millennium.”
Huckabee has 15 months left as governor of Arkansas, which will make him a private citizen in January 2007. Why should we care if he runs for president in 2008?
For one thing, his actions as governor may be influenced by future political plans. According to many observers, Huckabee was less engaged in the 2005 legislative session than he was in the past. (His take is that he worked as hard behind the scenes.) That could be attributable to typical lame-duck detachment, or he might have wanted to avoid controversial issues that could damage his political standing in advance of a presidential run.
“It seemed like he was not as focused as he was in the past,” said state Rep. Jay Bradford, a 22-year veteran of the state legislature. “His sights are on a different horizon now. He’s term-limited. He’s looking at 49 other Arkansas’s. He wants to appeal to a broad base of states. Because of that, maybe he’s moving on, like most lame ducks.”
Also, Huckabee has found ways to use his office to bolster his national profile. Besides his chairmanships of the NGA and other associations, Huckabee has been appearing in national television advertisements paid for with state dollars.
Mitch Chandler, a spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Economic Development, said the TV spots feature Huckabee interviewing pedestrians on a street in San Francisco, asking them if they knew that Arkansas has been recognized as a great place to do business. (Coincidentally, perhaps, San Francisco is the home of Huckabee’s national political consultant, Dick Dresner.)
Initially directed toward viewers of the CNBC cable network starting in January, the commercials got a wider audience during a concentrated summer media buy on CNBC, CNN and the FOX News Channel, when the “target was everybody,” according to Chandler. The campaign cost about $60,000 to produce and an additional $230,000 to broadcast.
Huckabee also devoted more time in recent years to trips to Japan, Mexico and other countries to encourage investment in Arkansas, which gives him at least some international experience to which he can refer in a presidential contest.
All of this is to say: Why not? Those who are skeptical of Huckabee’s chances need only refer to the path that Bill Clinton took to the White House, which was just as unlikely.
Like Clinton, Huckabee was born in Hope, and he is approaching a possible presidential run at about the same time Clinton did. (Clinton, born in 1946, was 46 when he was elected president in 1992. Huckabee just turned 50. Their August birthdays are less than a week apart.)
However, Huckabee did not enter politics as quickly as Clinton did. After attending Ouachita Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Seminary, Huckabee was a pastor in several Arkansas churches and served as president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention from 1989 to 1991 (some see that as a political position). He moved into elective politics the next year, challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers. While he lost by a 60-40 margin, he was able to take some momentum into a 1993 special election for lieutenant governor, narrowly defeating Democrat Nate Coulter. The 1996 resignation of Gov. Jim Guy Tucker elevated Huckabee to the state’s highest office, and by holding on to the position in 1998 and 2002, Huckabee has earned a place after Govs. Orval Faubus and Bill Clinton as one of the longest-serving Arkansas governors.
Huckabee would face prominent members of his own party in a national presidential primary, and compared to them his name recognition is low. But there are several blogs dedicated to promoting his candidacy, and they are pushing hard. One website, politicalderby.com, ranked Huckabee 10th among possible Republican candidates but noted, “Huckabee is near the top of the pack when it comes to internet chatter. Whether it’s legitimately broad based or simply manufactured by a small group of supporters remains to be seen. But in the meantime he gets credit for having the most people say, ‘Hey, this guy could be president!’”
Clearly that is what Huckabee thinks, too, and he will spend the next 15 months exploring that possibility as he governs our state at the same time.