Huckabee’s Second Bapticostal Bid for the GOP Nomination

Polling is showing Mike Huckabee ahead of the pack of his rivals for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination in evangelical-heavy Iowa.

In 2008, Huckabee, after a surprise second place showing in the straw poll held by the Iowa GOP the summer before the caucuses, pulled out a win in Iowa, only to be unable to replicate it elsewhere. Then, despite strong evangelical support, he suffered from a splintered GOP field and charges by Arkansas Republicans that he was too soft — a RINO (Republican In Name Only). I wrote in late 2007:

Huckabee’s willingness to use government to help those economically left behind, including immigrants, has turned him into a pariah among some economic conservatives who mobilize the ground troops for the GOP’s anti-tax, anti-government message that serves the corporate wing of the party, which Huckabee has accused of being a “wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street.” For anyone who wonders why this charmer with a perfect record on the right’s core social litmus tests has not already wrapped up the Republican nomination, they need look no further than the disgruntled uber-conservatives who are spitting mad that Huckabee has been too nice to poor people and foreigners.

Even after losing the nomination, and after the bank bailouts, Huckabee continued with this anti-Wall Street theme, writing:

It’s especially disconcerting to see the very people who pilloried me during the Presidential campaign for being a “populist” and not “understanding Wall Street” to now line up like thirsty dogs at the Washington, D. C. water dish, otherwise known as Congress, and plead for help.

But by 2010, Huckabee had turned to emphasizing both big bad government (i.e., the Democrats, even though the bank bailouts occurred under Bush) and big bad Wall Street as a moral and spiritual problem, telling the Values Voters Summit:

I think it’s going to be a great time for us to convene those death panels and finally offer a lethal injection to the kind of congressional arrogance that we have had lording it over us for so long, passing bills that nobody in Congress bothered to read, inflicting upon us the torture not only against our pockets, but against our principles.

. . . .

There’s a lot of people who say, but this is not a year where we ought to be talking about social issues, value issues. Well, let me remind you of something. First of all, many of our economic issues are the result of the breakdown of something of character and integrity.

The meltdown of Wall Street was not a money crisis, it was a moral crisis. . . . The way we’ve run the financial institutions of Wall Street with government bailouts,
if they lose, you, the taxpayer, pay for it and the government breaks both your legs to make it happen.

The second thing, ours is not so much a fiscal crisis; it’s a family crisis. I think we need to recognize that this morning in today’s paper there’s a story that tells us that the highest poverty levels in the history of this country, since we’ve been keeping records, are present today. One-in- seven Americans is officially poor. That’s a startling revelation.

Now, I thought that under the plan of let’s spend everybody’s money and redistribute the wealth, we were going to eliminate poverty. But see, the problem is the real reason that we have poverty is because we have a breakdown of the basic family structure.

Huckabee suffered in 2008, many believed, from a reluctance of prominent religious right leaders, like James Dobson, to endorse him early enough in the primary process to make a difference. This angered grassroots activists, many of whom didn’t care who Dobson endorsed. Still, though, with both Fred Thompson, who had some evangelical support, and Mitt Romney, who also did, splitting the evangelical vote in states like South Carolina with John McCain, Huckabee was unable to pull out a victory. That led to some regrets and recriminations later, when religious right leaders realized they were stuck with McCain, an evangelically inadequate candidate (until he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate).

Huckabee is one candidate who can cleverly navigate different parts of Evangelical-Land, especially at the grassroots, despite the early shunning he received from some in leadership positions. Covering his campaign appearances guest sermons at charismatic churches, I several times heard him refer to himself as a “Bapti-costal” — a Southern Baptist with Pentecostal sensibilities. He positions himself with the Christian nation mythology, being the candidate of choice at the gatherings of Renewal Projects, which often featured Newt Gingrich’s “Rediscovering God In America” lectures. The Renewal Projects hosted “Pastors’ Policy Briefings,” and in Iowa, these gatherings were thought to be effective get-out-the-vote tools, by encouraging pastors to mobilize their congregants.

In early 2008, Huckabee expressed his affection for Christian nation mythologist and Glenn Beck favorite David Barton, another key figure appearing at the briefings, saying:

we shouldn’t be afraid of giving kids the truth about our American history and heritage. We ought to make sure they know what it is. David Barton, who is one of my dear friends, and probably, I think, maybe the greatest living historian on the spiritual nature of America’s early days, is a person who I wish was writing the curriculum.

The other Republican candidates expressed displeasure that the Renewal Projects so clearly favored Huckabee, since the other candidates weren’t invited. David Lane, the events’ organizer, told me in 2008:

“What we’re doing is the mobilization of pastors and pews to restore America to her Judeo-Christian heritage. That’s our goal.” As for Huckabee’s participation, Lane said there was nothing unusual about it — Huckabee has been speaking at similar events Lane has been organizing since 1994, throughout his tenure as Lieutenant Governor and Governor of Arkansas. Lane added that videotapes of a recent Iowa briefing had been distributed to 5,000 churches.

But in some ways Huckabee is hard to figure: other Southern Baptists have accused him of being insufficiently conservative; Robert Novak, the late conservative columnist, once fretted that Huckabee allowed a Christian Reconstructionist to host a fundraiser for him, and that Christian Reconstructionist views represented his base, despite the charges from some in the religious right that he was insufficiently conservative.

Still, in 2012, Huckabee has a different kind of competition: he may find himself going head to head with Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Tim Pawlenty for the evangelical vote instead of McCain, Romney, and Thompson. And tea party-ism will probably drive a focus not on Wall Street greed (which proved to be a liability for a Republican anyway), but the “big government” bogeyman. All these candidates, no doubt, will emphasize what they claim to be the divine founding of the nation, and the divine source of the Constitution, as their basis for anti-government rhetoric.

While other aspiring 2012 contenders get a lot of the limelight, Huckabee’s supporters view him as the authentic candidate who understands them — unlike the corporate bigwigs at Fox. At the Values Voters Summit last year, HuckPAC volunteers and Huckabee diehards expressed resentment over their belief that their guy is shunned at Tea Party events and by Fox (although he does have his own program there). Lynn Lewis, a volunteer for Mike Huckabee who attended the VVS and is also a tea partier, told me that for “a lot of tea partiers, their main issue is fiscal and they just put up with the social conservatives because we’re under the same tent together.” But she added that many, like herself, also care about the social issues. “It’s not either or, it’s both and.”

As to whether the celebrity of tea party figures would hurt Huckabee in Iowa, though, Lewis just smiled and told me, “Iowa already loves him.” Perhaps those 5,000 videos paid off.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email