I have to admit that, during the Republican primary, I developed a genuine affinity for Mike Huckabee. Of all of the Republican and religious right figures I have followed in ten years as an analyst for People For the American Way, Huckabee presented something different: a down-to-earth, funny, and likable guy who was willing to break with his party’s orthodoxy to stand up for the little guy—all while plunking away on his bass guitar.
That image, so studiously maintained on the campaign trail, is the one he continues to push on tour for his new book, Do the Right Thing (Penguin, 2008). Ironically, it’s that very image of the dimpled everyman that’s all but negated by the venom, antipathy, and outright disdain that animates the book. The former Governor of Arkansas heaps insults upon Democrats, his one-time rivals (primarily Mitt Romney,) the Republican Party, those who live and work in Washington DC, and on the nation’s capital in general. As someone who works in Washington DC, it is tough to maintain affection for a man who dedicates a good chunk of his book to blasting the seat of government as nothing more than a “roach motel.”
Billed as an inside look at “the movement that’s bringing common sense back to America,” the book is part campaign memoir, part policy statement, and partly a challenge to all Americans to stop being so fat, lazy, and mean. But mostly it is a means for Huckabee to settle scores with all those who failed to support his candidacy, see its genius and, consequently, to save America from itself.
More “Touched By an Angel” than “Desperate Housewives”
From the very beginning, Huckabee makes no effort to conceal his disdain for his presidential rivals and seemingly goes out of his way to invoke Mitt Romney wherever he can, mentioning the former Massachusetts governor by name more than sixty times in the first one hundred pages. While Huckabee doesn’t have anything particularly nice to say about Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, or John McCain—the others barely rate a mention—it is Romney who personifies everything that is wrong with the Republican Party.
It’s clear that Huckabee resents Romney’s wealth and the millions of dollars he pumped into his own campaign. Huckabee and his staff, who were often just scraping by, at one point blasted Romney for attempting “a leveraged buyout of the Republican presidential nomination,” calling him one of those “political wannabes with self-inflicted funding [who] let themselves be sculpted and focus-grouped into what a high-priced pollster thinks is a winning package.” Time and again he mocks the former Massachusetts governor for spending millions, yet failing to win half the votes that Huckabee and his rag-tag campaign racked up, dismissing Romney’s entire campaign as a fraud perpetuated solely by the fact that his “net worth bought him instant status … [as] a serious contender.”
While Huckabee nurtures a deep personal dislike of Romney, what he truly despises is everything Romney represents: the rich, East Coast, insider elites who dominate the Republican Party. Huckabee, the son of a fireman who struggled to make ends meet, effectively wages class warfare against the party insiders and libertarian “faux-cons” in Washington; he lashes out at the likes of National Review magazine and the Club for Growth, whom he calls “the silk-stocking crowd,” for looking down their noses at the blue collar “values voters” that Huckabee claims to represent. Two chapters are devoted to holding himself up as the representative of those who shop at Wal-Mart and not Neiman Marcus; of those who eat at The Waffle House rather than Ruth’s Chris Steak House; of those who watch Touched By an Angel and not Desperate Housewives. He expends several pages rehashing old campaign attacks on his record from the Club for Growth and several more pages striking back at National Review for their opposition to talk that John McCain might pick him as his running mate. But even here Romney remains representative of everything that “was wrong with our party.”
Likewise, the media is routinely raked over the coals for their handling of the Republican debates and for treating him like some backwoods Christian bumpkin. Huckabee huffs that during every debate, candidates like McCain, Romney, and Giuliani received the bulk of the questions just because they had more money in their campaign coffers, while he was lucky to get even one question thrown his way—and when he did, it was inevitably a question about religion.
With relish Huckabee rehashes an episode from the debate at St. Anselm College when CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer asked for his views on evolution. Fed up with being pushed to the sidelines only to be asked a question that had nothing to do with the presidency, Huckabee recounts how he unleashed his “pent-up frustration,” proclaiming that the question was unfair and had nothing to do with his qualifications. But since Blitzer asked, he wanted to make it clear that he does believe in God and refuses to apologize for it. Huckabee reports that Republican pollster Frank Lutz later told him that the response to his answer was “off the charts” in a focus group, and that John McCain leaned over during the debate to tell him that “that’s the best answer I’ve ever heard and exactly what I believe.”
Betrayed by the Religious Right
To anybody who paid any attention to Huckabee during the GOP primary, his disdain for the media was obvious, as was his loathing of Romney, so much of the book’s animus comes across as old news and surprisingly petty. What is astonishing is the outright contempt with which Huckabee treats the religious right establishment and its leadership. His sense of betrayal courses through the chapter on the subject, in which he laments that he has now been made “politically homeless,” declaring that the “generals” of the movement are going to be surprised with they see their foot soldiers abandon them for true leaders—presumably, Huckabee and the gaggle of right-wing figures who supported his campaign.
“[I]n so many ways, I was the perfect choice for them. I was not coming to them, I was coming from them,” Huckabee writes, going on to complain that “none of the candidates had accomplished more on the life issues than I had—no one,” and that “no one in the race supported traditional marriage more strongly than I did.” And yet the religious right establishment was not only lukewarm to his candidacy, most were downright hostile. Huckabee attacks the influential Arlington Group for jerking him around and goes after several high-profile leaders by name: Pat Robertson, John Hagee, Rod Parsley, Bob Jones III, and especially Gary Bauer, whom he calls “politically clueless.”
Interestingly, there is not one mention of James Dobson, whose feckless wavering during the GOP primary apparently didn’t warrant Huckabee’s scorn. Perhaps that is because Dobson did eventually endorse Huckabee, but only when it was clear that Huckabee couldn’t win and the move was primarily seen as an anti-endorsement of John McCain, whom he vowed never to support.
In the end, Huckabee declares that the movement is no longer led by “clear-minded and deeply-rooted prophets with distinct moral lines,” but rather by “political operatives…whose goal was to be included and invited” to hobnob with the insiders. Yet Huckabee concludes that, in the end, it was probably best that the religious right establishment didn’t back him because they would have just “thought that they were solely responsible for any success I might have had.”
The fact that Huckabee was able to do so well without their support is clearly a great source for pride for him, so much so that he declares that the success of his campaign will be the harbinger of a “new wave of leaders…[with] prophetic voices…[who are] determined to follow their convictions instead of the conventional wisdom.” Those constituting this “new wave” of leadership, according to Huckabee, is a veritable who’s who of fringe right-wing second-stringers like Janet Folger, Don Wildmon, Michael Farris, Rick Scarborough, Mat Staver, and David Barton. The one thing they all have in common, interestingly enough, is that they endorsed Mike Huckabee.
And this represents one of the most confusing and contradictory things about the man, his book, and his campaign in general: Mike Huckabee presents himself as an Average Joe with a deep personal faith, yet not as one of those moralizing, finger-pointing culture warriors who cares only about demonizing gays and stopping abortion. While he doesn’t deny possessing a deep commitment to those issues, he likes to proclaim that he drinks a different kind of “Jesus juice” than the Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell types in that he likewise possesses an equally deep affinity for issues like the environment, poverty, and human rights.
When it came time to tap evangelical leaders to serve as surrogates and supporters for his campaign, the only ones willing to join him were the most hard-line, right-wing activists around. Scarborough, for instance, calls himself a “Christ-ocrat” and Folger is fond of making declarations like “vote for Barack Obama and you’ll go to hell.” Barton is a pseudo-historian dedicated primarily to proving that the Republican Party is, has been, and always will be the party of God, while Wildmon is the head of the notoriously boycott-happy American Family Association. The disconnect between Huckabee’s proclamations of a new direction for the movement— even as his support came from the most ideological wing of that same movement—is apparently lost on him.
This sort of disconnect that once plagued his campaign is also what ails his book. While pages are filled with vague bromides about how he intends to solve our nation’s myriad problems—implementing the Fair Tax, instituting mandatory civilian service, getting people to be healthier and nicer to one another—the book is fueled by resentment and the need to strike back at those who didn’t take him or his ideas seriously during the Republican primary. At one point, he even recounts how he “ran for president in junior high against a popular, good-looking kid.” He lost that one too, and frankly he doesn’t seem to have ever gotten over it.
Another Year, Another Plastic Ring
Do The Right Thing was clearly written months ago, though it wasn’t released until after Obama’s victory, which renders the entire first chapter—which Huckabee spends warning his readers not to elect a Democrat because they will only destroy our health-care system and economy, and will lose the war on terror—somewhat moot.
In fact, the entire book reads like something that would typically be released at the launch of a campaign, as a candidate lays out his platform in an accessible format, not something a losing candidate puts out after his and his party’s defeat at the polls.
Unless, of course, that candidate’s real goal was to not-so-subtly blame his party’s electoral loss on the fact that they had failed to nominate him, and to set himself up for a future presidential run.
And that appears to be exactly what Huckabee has in mind because, as the book closes, he relates an anecdote about his daughter Sarah getting a plastic ring out of a vending machine before the campaign finished second in the Iowa Straw Poll. That ring became the campaign’s good luck charm, worn by his campaign manager Chip Saltsman during every primary from then on. After Huckabee finally dropped out of the race, once McCain secured the nomination, Saltsman handed the ring back to Sarah, saying “hang on to this. We’re going to need this again.” Huckabee then ends the book with: “I like the thought of that.”
What Huckabee apparently hasn’t thought of is that writing a book in which he trashes his former rivals, Republican Party insiders, influential conservative organizations, and the leadership of much of the religious right in preparation for making another presidential run might not be a particularly effective means of winning their much-needed support the next time around. But then Mike Huckabee’s never been one for political calculations.