Huckabee. Funny, improbable name; funny, improbable candidate. How funny? Well, have a look at the first Huckabee for President campaign commercial, aired last week in Iowa and now ubiquitous on the Web. In it, the former governor of Arkansas trades straight-faced non sequiturs with Chuck Norris, the B-list action star. (Norris: “Mike Huckabee wants to put the I.R.S. out of business.” Huckabee: “When Chuck Norris does a pushup, he isn’t lifting himself up, he’s pushing the earth down.”) It’s an unusually entertaining spot—or, rather, meta-spot, the subtext of which is its own absurdity and, by extension, that of the whole genre.
How improbable? Well, up until the tail end of the summer, polls had Huckabee’s support for the Republican nomination hovering between zero and three per cent, usually closer to zero. In October, he broke into a trot, in November into a Gallup. In a poll released on Thanksgiving eve by Reuters/Zogby, he is in third place, at eleven per cent, nosing past not only John McCain but also Mitt Romney and narrowing the gap with the fading Fred Thompson to four points. In Iowa, where actual voting will occur on January 3rd, he has surged into what is essentially a tie with Romney for first place.
Huckabee, who at fifty-one is the youngest Republican running, spent half of his adult life as a Southern Baptist minister. Most of his support, so far, comes from the Evangelical Christian right. Yet to those who are not in that category his affect is curiously unthreatening. “I’m a conservative, but I’m not mad at anybody,” he likes to say. His manner and appearance are reassuringly ordinary. When he smiles or laughs, which is often, his dimpled face looks interestingly like that of Wallace, of Wallace & Gromit.
On a recent day that Huckabee spent in Seattle, where he went to scare up a little cash (he has raised and spent a tiny fraction of his opponents’), his unexpectedness was fully on view. A luncheon speech to a roomful of like-minded supporters—such people do exist even in the land of Microsoft—was remarkable for what it wasn’t. The snobbery of cultural élites, the “homosexual agenda,” the alleged desire of Democrats to surrender to Islamofascists—these went unmentioned, as did abortion, gay marriage, and the liberal media. Nor did he have anything unpleasant to say about any of the other candidates of either party, unless you count an otherwise respectful reference to Hillary Clinton as “the presumptive Democrat nominee.” (“We get along cordially,” he said, referring to the Clintons. “They’ve campaigned against me and raised money for every opponent I ever had, and that’s O.K., because I’ve campaigned against them just as fervently.”)
Huckabee speaks calmly, in stories, parables, and extended metaphors. The foreign-policy section of his talk (what there was of it) was a leisurely account of how his children laugh at him when he tells them that his grade-school class used to “duck and cover” in fear of a Soviet nuclear attack. “Somehow, in our naïveté,” he said, “we thought that if the world is coming to an end the crosshairs of the first nuclear missile would be aimed at the Brookwood Elementary School, in Hope, Arkansas.” The section’s conclusion—and the speech’s only hint at how the speaker might deal with what he called “a very dangerous world”—was a single sentence: “I want to be the President that helps to make it so that your grandchildren laugh at you when you tell them you used to have to put your toothpaste in a plastic bag and take your shoes off to get on an airplane to go somewhere in this country.”
Like another governor from Hope who once ran for President, Candidate Huckabee reserves his real passion for matters domestic. On education, he talked not about standardized tests or back-to-basics but about something like their polar opposite. “We have to change and reform the education system so that we’re capturing both the left and the right sides of the kid’s brain,” he said. “There ought to be a new focus not just in math and science—which there needs to be—but also a balanced focus on music and art and right-side-of-the-brain activities. Otherwise, we end up with an education system that’s like a data download—a great database but no processor.” On health, he skipped the usual denunciations of socialized medicine and noted, as Republicans seldom do, that “we spend so much more per capita than any other country on earth”—far more than second-place Switzerland. “The current system says, ‘We won’t pay a hundred and fifty dollars for the visit to the podiatrist, we’ll wait until there’s a thirty-thousand-dollar amputation and we’ll cover that.’ ” Huckabee, who has Type 2 diabetes (but lost a hundred pounds and now runs marathons), knows what he’s talking about.
In the question period, the candidate declined several invitations to serve up red meat. Asked about immigration, he hurried through the assurances required by the current perfervid mood among Republicans—seal the border, no amnesty—to add, “People who come to this country would rather come here legally if they had the choice. Nobody wants to break the law because it’s fun to break the law. . . . When it takes seven to twelve years to get a permit to come so you can pick lettuce, you’ll decide, ‘In seven years my family will have starved. I think what I’ll do is, I’ll just pay somebody a couple of thousand bucks to haul me across the border, and maybe I’ll never get caught.’ ” If there was demagoguery in any of this, it was the demagoguery of policy vagueness and simplistic hope, not the demagoguery of anger and fear. At least Huckabee’s stories of people in need don’t have the patronizing, self-congratulatory sound of “compassionate conservatism.” (Anyhow, Huckabee calls it “conservativism.”)
Such signals have begun to excite the suspicions of the economic-royalist wing of the G.O.P. In a conversation after the speech, mention was made of the Club for Growth. Only then did Huckabee have something impolite to say. The Club for Growth is the secular church of supply-side fundamentalism; it promotes tax cuts and nothing but tax cuts, especially for the rich. It has spent months attacking Huckabee as a tax-and-spend liberal, because, in office, he presided over a mixture of tax hikes and tax cuts. “The Club for Greed, I call them,” he said. “They hate that. Oh, they hate it. And I enjoy giggin’ them about it, because I think they’re a despicable political hit organization that takes people’s money and anonymously attacks candidates, with no integrity to say, ‘This person here is attacking this public official.’ And when you do it in hiding, from the trees, I just think it’s cowardly.”
None of this is to say that Huckabee’s policy positions are much better than those of his Republican rivals; in some cases, they’re worse. He wants to replace the federal tax code with a gigantic, horribly regressive sales tax; he cannot name a single time he has ever disagreed with the National Rifle Association; he wants to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage and abortion. In practice, however, the sales tax and the amendments would go nowhere, and he couldn’t do much about abortion except appoint Scalia-like Justices to the Supreme Court—which his rivals have promised to do, too. God knows what his foreign policy would look like, but no one else does.
To all appearances, Huckabee’s gentle rhetoric is a reflection of temperament, not a stylistic tactic. Arkansans caution that he is capable of churlishness. But his history suggests that he prefers consensus to confrontation, that he regards government as a tool for social betterment, and that he has little taste for war, cultural or otherwise. He seems to regard liberalism not as a moral evil, a mental disease, or a character flaw—merely as a political point of view he mostly disagrees with. That may not seem like much, but it makes a nice change. If talk radio hears about it, though, it might be enough to keep him from the top of the ticket.