Mike Huckabee's star may fall as precipitously as it rose in the presidential stakes, but it is time to ask if something mysterious but important is happening in the electorate or if his rise is only evidence of a field of fatally vulnerable candidates.
In the six months between the beginning of the debates and the Iowa caucuses, the only Republican candidate who has not fallen in the estimation of the polls is the one who is inarguably the most liberal and the one who sounds most like a Democrat. Huckabee would dispute that description but it comports with his record in Arkansas and even with his public utterances when he is forced to defend that record and in thoughtful moments far away from the madding crowds of Iowa and South Carolina Republicans.
A month ahead of the caucuses Huckabee is leading the field in Iowa, and he has risen sharply in national polls so that he competes with the incredibly shrinking big four, which has to be a reflection of his glib, witty and saccharine performance in all the debates. It has liberal pundits across the country gushing about what a generous, reasonable and straight-shooting person he is. Those are not adjectives that many in his own party in Arkansas would have applied to the governor even a year ago. The Republican leader of the state Senate once called on him to be kinder in his public remarks about fellow Republicans.
If Republicans are turning to the moderate in a field of sullen men bent on seeing who can be the most reactionary, it is an unusual phenomenon. Republicans suspected they were nominating a liberal in 1952 when they picked Dwight Eisenhower over Mr. Conservative, Robert A. Taft, in the most contentious convention of modern times, but they did so because they thought he could beat the Democrats and that the sainted Taft, who wanted to roll back Social Security and the whole New Deal, couldn't. But winnability isn't Huckabee's secret. The same polls showing him gaining say that Republicans think he would be less likely than others to win.
On the other hand, maybe the conservatives who see him as the truest ideologue just do not know him. His standard stump talk, which you can catch often on C-SPAN, does carry a litany of conservative dogmatisms: lower taxes, smaller government, abortion, gay marriage, and even tough immigration controls.
Huckabee's immigration stance is at once the most emblematic of his liberal impulses and politically the most paradoxical because immigration is the dominant GOP issue. The campaign of Sen. John McCain, the early front-runner, imploded over his steadfast support of the administration's humane immigration bill, but Huckabee makes McCain look like a nativist.
Romney tried to nail Huckabee in the last debate for passing a law giving children of illegal immigrants state-paid college scholarships and in-state tuition rates. Huckabee defended it eloquently, pointing out first that it did not become law — the House of Representatives passed it easily but Republicans blocked it in the Senate — and that he wanted to live in a country that did not punish children for the sins of their parents. (He also said the youngsters would have to have applied for citizenship to get a scholarship, which was not true. The bill said youngsters would have to give the college a statement that they intended to seek legal status some day.)
That bill was not an isolated instance. The highlight of his last two years in office was his running war with Republican lawmakers and the “Shiite wing” of his party — his words — over what he called their bigotry and fearmongering over immigration.
He bitterly fought (with Democratic help) a Republican bill restricting government services to U.S. citizens, calling it race baiting and demagoguery, and when the bill failed he condemned a plan to put the same proposal on the ballot and doubted the “Christian values” of the sponsor.
“What this has done is inflamed a whole lot of people's emotions, making them think we've got to rush in and pass some laws to stop some terrible thing going on that isn't going on,” he said.
But it was going on. At Huckabee's behest, the state became one of only seven states that used Medicaid money to cover prenatal care for immigrant women because Hispanic women had an unusually high prenatal birth-defect risk.
Over the objections of conservative nativists he worked to get a Mexican consulate in Little Rock to help immigrants with labor problems and getting papers. He condemned federal agents for raiding an Arkadelphia plant and instantly deporting Mexican workers and splitting their families. When a key administration official sent an email with some derogatory doggerel about Hispanic immigrants Huckabee dumped him with the admonition “racial stereotyping by state leaders is simply not funny and must be consequenced.”
In a remarkable talk to the Political Animals Club he said God had given America “a second chance” to do the right thing by treating Hispanics better than it had treated blacks for much of its history.
“One of our greatest challenges is making sure we don't commit the same mistakes with our growing Hispanic population that we did with African-Americans 150 years ago and beyond,” he said. “I feel the Lord, frankly, has given us a second chance to do better than we did before. I hope we will do that.”
Immigration is supposed to be the wedge issue for Republicans next year. If that's so, let's hope that Mike Huckabee is their man.