In 2007, Mike Huckabee stood impassively on a Republican presidential debate stage while Mitt Romney tried to embarrass him. A program that Huckabee had instituted in Arkansas gave undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children the right to in-state tuition at Arkansas’s public universities.
Huckabee sounded, Romney said, like a Massachusetts liberal. “Are we going to give taxpayer-funded benefits to kids that are here illegally and put them ahead of kids that are here legally?” he asked.
Huckabee explained that the kids who benefitted were brought to the U.S. as children, that they had spent all their young lives in Arkansas’s public schools, and that, in many cases, they had excelled. He alluded to his own story—going to work at 14 as a local radio host, working his way through Ouachita Baptist University in two and half years.
“Let me finish, Mitt,” he said when the former Massachusetts governor tried to interject. “In all due respect, we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did. We’re a better country than that.”
It was one of the more remarkable moments of the 2008 campaign. Here was a presidential contender not pandering to an anti-immigrant crowd but shaming his party— and, for that matter, his nation—to be better. Rare is the candidate who cuts against the grain of party orthodoxy; rarer still is one who uses the campaign to educate and persuade the public.
The moment brought Huckabee plaudits from some unlikely corners. In The Washington Post, the late dean of the D.C. press corps, David Broder, praised Huckabee for having “principles amid the GOP pack.” Frank Rich, in The New York Times, wrote that Huckabee was the Republican Obama. Rich attributed Huckabee’s rise in the polls to “his message,” which “is simply more uplifting—and, in the ethical rather than theological sense, more Christian—than that of rivals, whose main calling cards of fear, torture and nativism have become more strident with every debate. The fresh-faced politics of joy may be trumping the five-o’clock-shadow of Nixonian gloom and paranoia.”
It was an idea that ricocheted around liberal blogs and talk radio outlets. Sure, Huckabee’s views on social issues were a bit out of right field, but they weren’t appreciably different from those of the rest of the GOP field. And the rest of his policy ideas, even when right-leaning, were bathed in a soft, summer camp biblical glow. People of faith, he said in one memorable speech, need to show that they “are not just angry folks mad about some things we don’t like, but people who have joy in our hearts. People who want to help those without housing to find it, those without drinking water to drink it, to help people who are hungry at night to know what it is to have food.”
But the Huckabee who has emerged in the early days of the long run-up to the 2016 presidential election is far different. Happy Huckabee seems to be gone, the smile replaced by a snarl.
“He is not a different person, but the outlook then was better. We are in a different time. It calls for some tougher language.”
This new Huckabee told the New Hampshire Freedom Summit, “I’m beginning to think that there’s more freedom in North Korea than there is in the United States.” It’s the Huckabee who said Democrats want the women of America to “believe that they are helpless with Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of government.” Gone is the talk of evangelicals approaching the political sphere “with joy in our hearts.” Instead, Huckabee now wonders, “Why is it that Christians stand back and take it in the teeth time and time and time again?” It is this Huckabee who defended the Duck Dynasty reality star’s comments on gay marriage and civil rights in the South but accused those who criticize Chick-fil-A’s corporate anti-gay marriage stance of engaging in “vicious hate speech.”
Current and former members of Huckabee’s inner circle say the former Arkansas governor is serious about running for president again, more serious now than he was during his brief 2012 flirtation.
“He is absolutely laying the groundwork to make a decision,” said Hogan Gidley, a longtime adviser to the governor. “He obviously didn’t run last time, but circumstances are different this time. The Republican Party needs a strong communicator who has legitimate conservative accomplishments as a governor, and he fits the bill and checks all the boxes.”
Longtime citizens of Huckabee World say they have noticed the change in his public persona, too, but disagree on what is behind it. For some, it is proof that Huckabee is a master politician, able to meet the mood of his audience depending on the circumstances. If the 2007 version of the governor was sunny and kind, it is because the Republican Party was still flirting with the notion of compassionate conservatism. Now it is a party palpably angry with President Obama and looking for a leader who can give voice to that anger.
“The country was sunnier” in 2008, said Gidley. “He is not a different person, but the outlook then was better. We are in a different time. It calls for some tougher language.”
Others, however, say the real issue is that Huckabee, who hosted a talk radio show until the end of last year and hosts a weekend show on Fox News Channel, is now more used to the outrageousness of that format than he is to the political stage.
“Some of that is that he has been a commentator now for six years. That is more of a commentator quote than a governor quote,” said Chip Saltsman, Huckabee’s 2008 campaign manager. “Last time he had to transition from being a governor to being a presidential candidate. Now he has to transition from being a commentator to being a candidate.”
But Huckabee’s broadcasting turn was based on the notion that he was the guy from 2007, and not the guy eliciting “Oh no he didn’t” from the Tea Party crowd these days. He was supposed to be the anti-Rush Limbaugh when the longtime conservative talker was under fire for calling Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke a “slut.” The tagline of Huckabee’s radio show was “More Conversation, Less Confrontation,” and he told an interviewer: “I’m not a person who would call anyone by names that would cause my late mother to come out of her grave and slap me to the floor.”
That project, of course, failed to get much of an audience, or to dethrone Limbaugh.
Perhaps his broadcast experience, combined with the failure of the 2008 campaign, means that Huckabee has undergone a real shift. Close aides said he was resentful after the 2008 election that Mitt Romney was widely perceived to be the second-place finisher to John McCain and thus the heir apparent for 2012.
“I think there is a piece of him that thinks he should have really run last time as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney,” said one former aide. “He didn’t think it was the year for him, and then he saw all these other guys claim that mantle.”
Longtime Huckabee observers back from his days in Arkansas say his new public pronouncements do not surprise them.
“He might have been a Baptist preacher, but he had a mean streak a mile wide,” said Jimmy Jeffress, a former Arkansas lawmaker who served in the statehouse during Huckabee’s tenure. Although the two battled bitterly in Little Rock, Jeffress said that since the governor the statehouse, “He has just become a complete opportunist. He says these things to reach out to the hearts of Republican voters. I don’t think that is what he feels, but he wants to get more support and he doesn’t want to just go home to his multimillion-dollar mansion on the Florida coast...and put his feet in the water.”
Huckabee’s aides and associates say that whatever furor he is creating now, it will die down by the time the primary season starts in earnest. They expect him to recalibrate, slightly, to be more happy warrior than culture warrior. And they say he and they have learned the lessons of 2008. They point to his strong numbers in early polls and say he is the only candidate who can fire up the evangelical base, which, despite the attention that Tea Party and Libertarian types are getting, remains a substantial pillar of the GOP’s path to victory.
“We had a pretty good trial run in 2008,” said one person close to the governor. “Now we have been there. And we are hungry for it.”