Governors seeking the White House face an inherent disadvantage when discussing matters of foreign policy, and nowhere is that more apparent than in former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s new 47-second ad “Rattlesnake.”
It opens, like all good campaign propaganda should, with footage of explosions and ski-mask-clad militants waving handguns. “When you’re dealing with Islamic Jihad that has, as its goal, the annihilation of everyone who does not agree with their absolute religious fanaticism, you’re dealing with a rattlesnake,” Huckabee tells us.
The video cuts to a rattlesnake in some weeds. The rattlesnake unhinges its jaw and lunges toward the camera in slow motion.
“As a kid growing up in south Arkansas,” Huckabee continues, “one thing I learned about rattlesnakes: You don’t get in their head and try to figure out why they want to bite ya, you don’t try to have a conversation with them, you don’t negotiate with them, you sure as heck don’t feed ’em—you take their heads off with a 4-10 shotgun or a hoe before they bite ya because the one thing you can be sure of is that that snake will bite ya if he can.”
Let’s first forgive Huckabee for believing that talking to or negotiating with a snake is even an option. He interprets the Bible literally.
Huckabee also isn’t the first politician to try to use snakes to explain terrorism. At a 2011 press conference in Islamabad, Hillary Clinton said “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbors. Eventually those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the backyard.”)
But never mind all that.
The problem here really begins when Huckabee says “when you’re dealing with Islamic Jihad…”
Huckabee has never dealt with “Islamic Jihad” because such a thing does not exist or directly threaten Arkansas, where he served as governor from 1996 to 2007 (it also does not exist at Fox News, where he was a paid contributor, or at his Florida mansion), nor does Arkansas have any responsibility—or ability—to help combat terrorism on foreign soil. Huckabee’s main foreign policy credential is that he has been talking about foreign policy since 2007, when he first started running for president.
To Huckabee, trying to understand the cause of terrorism or a sophisticated means of eradicating it is a total waste of time.
The biggest threat that he can wrap his head around is a reptile—native to America!—that mostly feeds on small rodents and birds.
But this is not necessarily Huckabee’s fault—and he’s not alone.
Running a state does not require one to regularly contemplate war or diplomacy in the way that serving in Congress does.
Governors do not, obviously, get to vote on war resolutions or defense spending and because of that, their opinions about foreign policy are infrequently sought, because they are not relevant to their position.
In fact, were a governor to be completely devoid of presidential ambitions, they could feasibly serve two terms at the helm of any of the 50 states without once speaking publicly about the Middle East or Russia—and it wouldn’t actually matter.
And that’s how you end up with moments like the one two weeks ago on This Week, when former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, looking like a deer-in-headlights, haltingly answered a question about the biggest threat to national security.
“The greatest danger that we face right now on a consistent basis in terms of manmade threats is—um—is—nuclear Iran and related to that, extremist violence,” he said. “I don’t think you can separate the two. I think they go together in terms of natural threats, clearly, it’s climate change.”
His Republican counterparts who would like to be president have been equally unlucky navigating matters of homeland security.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, was asked about terrorism.
He responded confidently: “I want a commander-in-chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists does not wash up on American soil.”
Then, Walker made reference to his battles with unions—battles in which no one, to my recollection, was beheaded or hit by drones. “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”
After Crimea was invaded by Russian military forces, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie attended what The New York Times reported was “a confidential meeting of Republican activists.”
At the meeting, he was asked how he would deal with Putin differently than President Obama has, to which he replied by saying Obama’s behavior had let him be pushed around by Putin. “I don’t believe, given who I am, that he would make the same judgement,” he claimed. “Let’s leave it at that.” Christie reportedly did not offer any further insights into his own understanding of the issue.
In August, now-former Texas governor Rick Perry addressed the Heritage Foundation in Washington. He told them he believed it’s a “very real possibility” that ISIS could cross into the United States through Mexico because the border is not secure. “We have no clear evidence of that,” he acknowledged, but “individuals from ISIS or other terrorist states could be” planning to do that or, “they may have already used that.” Perry used this theory to advocate for a border fence.
The chief strategist for (former governor) Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign (and a Daily Beast contributor) Stuart Stevens told me that any candidate could become strong on foreign policy if they are willing to put in the work. “It’s a ton of work,” he said, and it “can’t be faked.” But senators and congressman probably have “more resources available.”
But you can’t discount the value of less traditional resources, like firsthand experience shooting or chopping the heads off rattlesnakes in south Arkansas before they tell you to “bend over and take it like a prisoner!”
Before they “bite ya.”