Why Republicans should ♥ Huckabee in ’08

By Tim Murphy

At first glance, GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee seems like the prototypical fringe candidate with absolutely no shot at the nomination.

The former governor of Arkansas has lost 110 pounds since 2003, when his doctor told him he would die within the decade if he didn’t make serious lifestyle changes, and many of his campaign appearances feature him on stage with an electric guitar and a backup band called Capitol Offense. Huckabee has joked that he’s running for president because his band didn’t make it on American Idol, and when asked if he spoke any languages besides English, he answered yes: Ancient Greek (so U of C). He hails from the same small town, Hope, as Bill Clinton, and like Clinton, he has the innate ability to both entertain and explain in one rhetorical flourish. Huckabee’s persona brings to mind a wittier and more sincere version of George W. Bush, circa 2000.

Rather than serve as a hindrance to his campaign, though, Huckabee’s anonymity is the best thing the GOP has going heading into 2008. The next president—and likely every president for the foreseeable future—will be stuck with the ramifications of the Bush administration’s actions both at home and abroad. If the Republicans play their cards right and nominate Huckabee, they can make enough of a distinction between their candidate and the current president to ensure that subsequent elections won’t also be considered referendums on Bush (as 2006 was and 2008 is shaping up to be).

It’s an advantage shared by none of Huckabee’s competitors on the right. A Giuliani, a Romney, or to a certain extent a McCain presidency would be viewed by a significant percentage of Americans as an extension of the current administration. As presidents, all of these Republicans would thus be put in the uncomfortable position of either “staying the course” on Iraq and Iran or performing an about-face from their present arguments, an option to which they have so far shown no inclination.

Giuliani, for example, attempts to compensate for his lack of foreign policy experience by issuing longwinded but shortsighted “policy papers” that argue with the type of broad, sweeping generalizations more suitable to the AM radio dial than the White House. His questionable decision to quit his post on James Baker’s Iraq Study Group in favor of the high-priced lecture circuit only exacerbates the notion that he is unwilling to step outside the shadow of 9/11 and into more complicated policy debates.

Romney, of course, is no less of a deep thinker when it comes to international relations, as evidenced by his suggestion that the government “double Guantanamo.” Because he has essentially been running for president since 2002, when he was elected governor of Massachusetts, Romney has put himself in the uncomfortable position of having marched in lockstep with the current President on every major foreign policy issue—something that made him a much more appealing candidate five years ago than it does now that they have the same albatrosses around their necks.

Mike Huckabee is likely not the savior of the Republican Party. However, he brings a freshness and vitality to the campaign that none of his counterparts come close to rivaling. While Romney claimed a statistical victory at July’s Iowa straw poll, it was Huckabee who stole the show with his guitar-playing, wisecracking, and down-to-earth ways. His surprising second-place performance was due in large part to the fact that voters who had been bussed to Ames by the Romney campaign ended up punching Huckabee’s name instead.

As a former Southern Baptist minister, he also puts a fresh face on the overly-caricaturized but nonetheless essential conservative Christian base. Unlike Kansas senator Sam Brownback, whose antagonizing rhetoric alienates more voters than it wins, Huckabee brings an uncommon eloquence to discussions of faith. When asked about his pro-life views at a recent debate, he spoke briefly about abortion before quickly segueing into a larger point about fighting homelessness and protecting every life. On the foreign policy front, no one will confuse him with Mike Gravel any time soon, but unlike his rivals, he has gone out of his way to criticize the president for his handling of the war—particularly the egregious lack of foresight in planning for post-Saddam Iraq.

Huckabee might not have the resources or the name recognition to beat whomever the Democrats nominate. However, by breaking out of the mold that Giuliani and the others seem dead set on following, he can give his a party a clearer opportunity at redemption in 2012. And maybe, just maybe, he can pull off the upset in November. He does, after all, come from a place called Hope.