That was a surprisingly positive profile of Mike Huckabee in the New Yorker last week. For instance:
Huckabee had more executive experience than any other candidate, Republican or Democratic, in the 2008 campaign (with the exception of Tommy Thompson, who dropped out of the race after the Iowa straw poll). “And yet you didn’t hear a Chris Matthews saying, ‘Governor, I want to talk to you about your education policy; you did some innovative things,’” he said. “No. It was, ‘O.K., you were a Baptist preacher. Let’s talk about evolution.’ It’s, like, ‘Are you an idiot? Is that the only thing you can ask me?’”
All the more surprising is that Huckabee polls at or near the top of Republican presidential candidates — and won the second-largest Republican delegate total in the 2008 primaries. It just shows how far charm can take you. (And for those who have never witnessed the Huckabee charm, click here to see him at work.)
To reform-minded conservatives and victory-minded Republicans, the Huckabee presented in the New Yorker and seen on his new Fox News television program raises exciting possibilities — and difficult questions.
On the positive side of the ledger:
• A sunny personality and unrancorous message. "I’m a conservative, but I’m not mad at anybody,” was a trademark Huckabee line during the 2008 campaign. It’s true, too. Huckabee has distanced himself from those who throw wild accusations at the president, and welcomed the First Lady with civility and respect on his television program. Huckabee’s gracious manner speaks well of him, and makes an attractive contrast with the name-calling of some other 2012 presidential candidates. Wit and humor are not essential attributes in a presidential candidate — Barack Obama scores zero in both departments when he’s not reading jokes composed by writers for "The Daily Show" — but they sure help when you have them.
• Concern for less affluent Americans. Tea Party Republicanism adopts a populist style, but its message speaks to (and for) America’s have-mores. Huckabee remembers that even before the recession, most families earned less than $70,000 — and that a majority party must therefore speak to and for them, too. Huckabee’s spats with groups like the Club for Growth are a feature, not a bug: They show that he understands the electoral and policy limits of economic libertarian ideology.
• Experience in an executive office. Huckabee served more than ten years as governor of Arkansas, a record unmatched by any other top-tier 2012 candidate. Compare that to Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich or even Mitt Romney, none of whom has ever been re-elected in a jurisdiction larger than a congressional district.
• A first-hand understanding of the obesity crisis. Huckabee has written a successful book about his lifelong struggle with being overweight. Obesity is America’s top public health problem. Too many Republicans dismiss it as a purely private matter of willpower, none of government’s business — even as it costs one health dollar in ten. In a Republican field that often seems to think the domestic purpose of government is limited to cutting taxes, Huckabee is uniquely able and willing to discuss this urgent problem.
• Raw brains. They matter! Huckabee is super-clever. His abilities give him an intellectual self-confidence that, in turn, makes possible the intellectual humility he so often exhibits in his public statements. Above all, he knows what it is okay for him not to know. Sarah Palin, by contrast, does not — she guesses, filibusters and wanders.
But there are questions too, and the New Yorker by and large failed to plumb them:
• Is he appropriately discerning on policy? Huckabee based his presidential candidacy in large part on his advocacy of the so-called Fair Tax, a national retail sales tax that could supposedly substitute for the income tax and put the IRS out of business. This idea is not half-baked — it has not even approached the vicinity of the oven. (See here for a devastating critique by Bruce Bartlett.) Huckabee’s advocacy of such an idea warns of a lack of policy skepticism, a susceptibility to schemes that sound good on first hearing — dangerous attributes in a president.
• Is his religious appeal wide enough? Faith-based politics is fine. But Huckabee's support in 2008 often seemed sectarian. He says his words were taken out of context, but at least once in the campaign he seemed to criticize Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith. This too-narrow religious appeal offended not only many American Mormons, but also a much larger group, Catholics, who readily inferred: “Huckabee, a Baptist, seems to disapprove of Mormonism as non-Christian. What must he think of us?”
• Is he socially out of touch with modern America? On gay rights the country is moving toward a new consensus. On stem-cell research, the consensus in favor seems as solid as ever. Huckabee has chastised Indiana governor Mitch Daniels for suggesting that the country needs a “truce” on divisive social issues. Does that mean Huckabee will reopen these divides — with conservatives increasingly breaking off the smaller half of the wishbone?
As I said, these are questions — not answers. But as we go through the roster of Republican possibles in 2012, it’s worth remembering some advice from Sherlock Holmes: “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
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