There’s no gentle way to say this, so let’s get right down to it: Mike Huckabee is leading the presumptive field of contenders for the Republican presidential nomination.
If, that is, PPP polling is to be believed. And why not? Chris Christie’s favorables are upside down. Marco Rubio bummed out the base by getting dreamy on immigration. Our latest eye-popping federal budget, the scourge of deficit hawks everywhere, was shepherded through by Paul Ryan. Bobby Jindal is twice as nerdy as Ryan and 10 times less powerful. Jeb Bush’s last name is Bush.
With a shortlist like that, there’s a certain twisted logic to the eerie return of America’s favorite onetime Arkansas governor and Fox News talk-show host. If the A-list is defined, for the moment, by its respective foibles, Huckabee offers something for every Republican to love. He’s thinner than Christie, smoother than Rubio, and warmer than Ryan. He’s got Jindal beat on the Southern thing—and Jeb too, so it’s not about race.
Back in 2008, when a novice Huck made the rounds on K Street as the Republican who knew how to beat Hillary, he had to strain to distinguish himself from the generic GOP pack of Dixie holdovers from the ’90s. Today, that crowd has faded from party prominence, and Huckabee’s political brand has changed with the times. Instead of a foil for Hillary—which, Satan willing, he may become once again—the Huckster is a patchwork creation of leftover Republican dreams, cobbled together in a dank experimental basement.
Secretly appreciate big government? Huckabee has a compassionate conservative bent for you. Perhaps you’re into religion? He can out-evangelical all comers. Heartland bona fides? Check. Tough on foreign policy? You betcha. Media savvy? He was a talk-show host on Fox News.
Huckabee’s the insurgent candidate for people who don’t like insurgent candidates. Oh, that Rick Santorum—he’s always gnashing his teeth and reminding us of how awful everybody is. But Mike Huckabee, he plays the bass with those contemporary Christian musicians. He’s a maverick for the anti-maverick set. John McCain was an erratic RINO who turned a hundred years old on the campaign trail. But Huckabee? Couldn’t you just pinch those cheeks!
It’s all enough to make you think this version of Frankenstein might have a happy ending.
Then reality creeps in. Huckabee’s all-purpose hodgepodge has a dark side: For every component that makes a Republican smile, there’s one that makes them cringe. He’s too soft to play political hardball, too coddled to handle a hostile press. Mike Huckabee is not a nerd because he’s not an intellectual. In a tight election, instead of Florida, Wisconsin, or New Jersey, Huckabee can theoretically deliver… Arkansas.
And what was that about compassionate conservatism again? Huckabee’s bleeding-heart populism is out of step with the times. Tea Partiers don’t want to be lectured about caring. Libertarians don’t want to be led on a heroic mission of national helping. Moreover, the mess he’d inherit from Obama plays to Huckabee’s weaknesses. NSA surveillance? WMD deals with Syria and Iran? Black ops? Dirty wars? You may as well ask Frankenstein’s monster to twerk.
Much like the GOP as a whole, Huckabee is caught in an awkward dilemma. Too popular to fail up front, too unpopular to succeed at the finish—he’s not going to earn another second chance to get the results Republicans want. In 2012, Huckabee passed on a White House run, telling his viewers the decision imbued him with “a peace that exceeds human understanding.” (I could relate.) If he coyly waffles this time around, his support will evaporate quicker than you can say Fred Thompson. But if he goes all in, Huckabee will find himself deep in the same scrum as A-list White House wannabes who are sure to grow stronger, not weaker, as the pre-election cycle progresses.
In other words, as we all know, early polls are usually a waste of time. Nevertheless, Huckabee’s dominance should give Americans pause. As the right of center struggles over which kind of leader should rise to the top, they ought to be careful how “unifying” a candidate they wish for. They just might get it—a jumble not just of selling points but complementary liabilities. Rather than hoping for a big-tent consensus candidate or a human laundry list of checked-off identity-political boxes, Republicans could free themselves from the torment and opt for the cleanest possible break with the middling, mediocre past.
That points toward a figure like Rand Paul or Ted Cruz. But Republicans have a long collective memory, and there’s no more cautionary tale in party lore than the horrendous flameout of Mr. Clean Break himself, Barry Goldwater. Since Ronald Reagan passed the baton, the national party has played the presidential game as safe as it possibly could—sometimes, as Newt Gingrich can attest, with a vengeance. Given the results of this feeble strategy, that’s better news for Mike Huckabee than it is for America.