The GOP Frontrunner Curse

Mike Huckabee’s pardon of a cop killer pretty much ended his 2012 presidential hopes. Mark McKinnon on why every GOP frontrunner seems to wind up like the drummers in Spinal Tap.

12.02.09 5:33 PM ET

Mike Huckabee’s pardon of a cop killer pretty much ended his 2012 presidential hopes. Mark McKinnon, in the ninth in a series of posts on the 2012 landscape, on why every GOP frontrunner seems to wind up like the drummers in Spinal Tap.

The horrific murder of four cops in Tacoma, Washington, has redefined the 2012 GOP presidential landscape.

Mike Huckabee, who as recently as last week outpolled all other potential GOP candidates (and came within four points of Obama), in the flash of a gun muzzle, is out of here. Because in 2000, Huckabee granted the cop killer, Maurice Clemmons, clemency. So, while he may have a long and prosperous career on Fox News or as a motivational speaker, Huckabee is done as a political candidate. For good. Doesn’t matter what the circumstances were, doesn’t matter whether there was a convincing rationale at the time. This is politics, American-style. Stick a fork in him.

What was sauce for the Michael Dukakis goose, is sauce for the Michael Huckabee gander. Worse actually. For Dukakis, Willie Horton was a general election issue. For Huckabee, Clemmons (who was shot dead by police Tuesday) would be a primary election issue. And Republican primary voters are notoriously law-and-order fanatics. They would make Willie Horton look like an altar boy compared to Maurice Clemmons.

His implosion opens up a hole you could fly a plane through—for someone to capture the hearts and imaginations of the Christian right and Iowa primary voters.

Rush Limbaugh calls Clemmons “Huckabee’s Willie Horton.” Quin Hillyer from the American Spectator writes that “no amount of stagecraft featuring backlit crosses and folksy aphorisms should hide Huckabee’s culpability for such horrendous judgment.”

Compounding the problem for Huckabee is that his history makes clear Clemmons is not an isolated incident. During his tenure as governor, Huckabee pardoned or reduced the sentences of 1,033 inmates (including 12 convicted murderers)—a number twice that of all the clemencies granted by Huckabee’s three immediate predecessors—Bill Clinton, Frank White, and Jim Guy Tucker—combined.

During the 2008 campaign, Huckabee’s clemency record flared as an issue. In 1996, he granted clemency to Wayne Dumond, a convicted rapist and murderer who assaulted and murdered a woman in Missouri a year after he was released.

More from McKinnon on the 2012 race The Clemmons’ killings pops the pinata on questions Republicans have been harboring about Huckabee. Jon Henke, co-creator of the blog The Next Right and a powerful voice for young conservatives, says: “It appeared that he was pardoning people who had friends who knew him or who’d had religious conversions in prison. It’s about Huckabee feeling his way to justice—not just criminal justice, because this pervades his thinking on a lot of policy. It’s illustrative of his bleeding-heart conservatism. This issue sort of opens up discussion again on the thing everyone already objects to about him.”

Even Huckabee supporters acknowledge the problem. “Huckabee was, and likely remains, a true believer in the concept of restorative justice,” says Joe Carter, who worked on Huck’s 2008 campaign. “Ironically, what makes Huckabee such an appealing presidential candidate—his empathy for all people and genuine belief in the individual—is also the trait that will prevent him from ever reaching the White House.”

And what does Huckabee have to say? “If I could have known nine years ago that this guy was capable of something of this magnitude, obviously I would have never granted a commutation.”

I’m sure Michael Dukakis thought the same thing about Willie Horton. Look where that got him.

It wasn’t clear whether Huckabee was actually planning to run for president in 2012. Still, the mere prospect had a significant impact on the handicapping and strategies of other contenders. His implosion opens up a hole you can fly a plane through for someone to capture the hearts and imaginations of the Christian right and Iowa primary voters.

Not that she needs any prodding, but this development could be just what Sarah Palin needs to pull the trigger. Because all those former Huckabee supporters out there will be looking around for a suitable candidate and while some may drift toward the likes of a Rick Santorum, most will soon be chanting, “Run Sarah run!” Palin has suggested she looks for signs, or “opening of doors”, that compel her decisions. Not hard to see how she might interpret this development as a spiritual nudge. And no matter how much money one makes writing books and giving speeches, that is a seduction hard to resist for anyone with political DNA. As James Carville once noted, “Running for president is like sex. You don’t do it once and forget about it.”

With Huckabee out of the way, and the political sirens singing her name, Palin is looking at a wide-open field. This development could also create a draft for an alternative attractive mainstream candidate. John Thune’s phone will be ringing. Will he answer?

On other hand, maybe Thune should just let the phone ring for awhile. Because look what’s happened to all the people who pick it up: Bobby Jindal stumbles in his big speech to the country, Jon Huntsman gets drafted to China, John Ensign and Mark Sanford sexplode and now Mike Huckabee morphs into Mike Dukakis.

2012 Top 10 GOP contenders:

1. Sarah Palin
2. Mitt Romney
3. John Thune
4. Tim Pawlenty
5. Newt Gingrich
6. Haley Barbour
7. Mitch Daniels
8. Rick Santorum
9. Joe Scarborough
10. Bobby Jindal

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.