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OpEd: Mike Huckabee The Great Conservative Hope, Four Years Late

Mike Huckabee's coming out speech was a fresh reminder of why he was once a shining star of the post-Bush Republican party.
Image: Mike Huckabee
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee waves to supporters in Hope, Ark., Tuesday, May 5, 2015, after he announced that he is running for the Republican presidential nomination. Huckabee pitched himself as the best GOP candidate to take on Democratic favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)Danny Johnston / AP

In love, comedy and politic, timing is everything.

Conventional wisdom would tell you that freshman Senator Barack Obama needed more seasoning. That running for president after roughly 15 minutes in office would be a mistake.

But nine years later, Obama confidently flexed before congress—he'd “won both of 'em.”

After being summarily rejected by the voters in 2008, many told Mitt Romney he’d be a fool for running again in 2012—but this time he beat the field and ended up his party’s nominee (and then got 47 percent of the vote).

Fortune favors the bold in American politics—the people willing to go out on a limb and take a chance. But what about the other side? What happens to the candidate who waits to strike while the iron is hot, but ends up whaling away on cold steel?

Enter Mike Huckabee, stage right: The great conservative hope, four years too late.

Huckabee’s post presidential primary career from 2008 could be a textbook case for how the GOP squanders talent and chooses money over charisma—an ultimate self-defeating oophagy that is the Republican primary system.

The former Arkansas Governor’s coming out speech in his hometown of Hope, Arkansas two weeks ago was a fresh reminder of why he was once a shining star of the post-Bush Republican party. He made populist arguments about fair wages, he spoke passionately about reducing the size and power of government and he even gave a subtle nod to the all encompassing love of God—not picking and choosing between gay and straight, black and white rich or poor. In other words, he was everything that could be right, about the Republican Party.

Image: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Huckabee launches bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination in Hope, Arkansas
U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee addresses supporters as he formallly launches his bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during an event in Hope, Arkansas May 5, 2015.MIKE STONE / Reuters

Huckabee had a similar message back in 2008, healing the wounds caused by 8 years of George W. Bush. Bush had alienated non-interventionist Republicans with his failed foreign policy, betrayed evangelical Christians with his constant pump fakes on gay marriage, and the faltering economy pretty much turned off anyone else from the party.

But there was Huckabee, on a shoestring budget, quick wit and a guitar, essentially in a tie for second place behind John McCain for the nomination. But when he lost, everything went downhill for the potential GOP savior. The downward slide of the GOP presidential strategy was really encapsulated by the fight between Romney and Huckabee in the 2008 primaries. Despite the fact that neither of them won the nomination, it foretold the kind of in-party split over ideology, character and strategy that continues to doom the GOP as a national winning party.

On the trail, Huckabee got into a very intense and personal battle with Mitt Romney, with the Huckster pointing out that Romney was an empty suit, a rich guy with heavy backers but no real roots in the GOP.

The Washington Post recently compiled some of his best one campaign liners:

On Romney's business record and regular guy credentials: "People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them of the guy they work with rather than the guy who laid them off.”

On Romney's conservative credentials: "Romney, here's a guy who didn't hit puberty in the conservative ranks until 60 years old."

By the time Huckabee was clowning Romney over fried chicken you knew the campaign had reached a new low. Yet, in the end, Mike Huckabee won 8 primary states, in 2008 many in the south and Midwest despite Mitt Romney burying him in negative ads and attack mailings. For all of his efforts, Romney only won 11 states.

Huckabee’s success showed two things, first that ultimately a rich northeastern Republican would always struggle to turn out the GOP base, and second that even a deeply conservative message on family values can be palatable if it comes from the right kind of messenger.

Huckabee’s folksy charm didn’t go unnoticed. Fox News, desperately wanting to keep prominent GOP contenders in the public eye after the 2008 election offered Huckabee a job (similar to the gig they gave Sarah Palin). The idea was to give Huckabee a large weekly format to hone his message, increase his stature and potentially launch himself into a 2012 campaign against incumbent Obama.

The fight between Romney and Huckabee in the 2008 primaries foretold the kind of in-party split over ideology, character and strategy that continues to doom the GOP.

However, the plan completely backfired. Huckabee gained weight, loved doing television and eventually lost his taste for campaigning. He freely admitted that he was making more money on television than he ever did as a politician. And in short order in early 2012 he committed a Republican suicide trifecta. He defended Michelle Obama’s healthy eating initiative against Sarah Palin’s attacks, praised Obama’s post-Gabrielle Giffords speech, and said that “Birthers were crazy”. In other words, in 2012 he was the Republican that the GOP needed. Back then the party needed someone who walked the Tea Party walk, but didn’t do the talk. Mike Huckabee is a conservative Christian but he doesn’t scare independents. He said that winter heating oil for the poor should be subsidized and he had a level of empathy that many felt Obama lacked even in 2012.

Could Huckabee have beaten Obama in 2012? Perhaps not, but his calming message of compassionate conservatism was what the party needed then before going over the ideological cliff of shut downs and blocked nominations that plague the party brand today.

In order to play ball with today’s Republican party Huckabee has had to transform himself into a parody of a country preacher—fire and brimstone with a side of bean casserole and onion flakes—rather than the politician of the past who seemed more interested in taking down the establishment and speaking for the working conservative poor in America. But unlike the other "also rans" he DID have a chance at one point, to make a splash on the national stage and he, along with the GOP squandered it.

The GOP chose to throw its lot in with the big money political elites, the shut down fanatics and the LGBT baiters and dog whistlers and now no one can run without being tainted with that smell.

But once upon a time there was a candidate who held all those beliefs but came across as humble and accessible as anyone in the field. Too bad that guy dropped out after 2008 and what we witnessed down in Hope, Arkansas was just a pale shadow of a political game changer that once was.