Once, there was a Mike Huckabee who, as the governor of Arkansas, was pretty darn progressive on education, who expanded Medicaid for children, who raised taxes and was way, way ahead of the curve on criminal justice reform.
This same person, when he ran for president in 2008, was pilloried by his fellow social conservatives for various perceived deficits of outrage on the issues on which they agreed. After the 2003 Supreme Court decision striking down the Texas sodomy law that had criminalized homosexual sex, for example, Huckabee had said on his radio show that the decision in Lawrence v. Texas “probably was appropriate” since any law that “prohibits private behavior among adults” would be too hard to enforce. Ann Coulter called him “one of those pro-sodomy, pro-gay marriage, pro-evolution evangelical Christians,” in part because he thought evolution should be taught in school along with creationism. On social rather than economic grounds, Rush Limbaugh insisted that the lifelong pro-lifer was “not a conservative” at all.
He was plenty conservative, but with what some on the right saw as an excessive leavening of compassion. Not surprising, since he’d spent a lifetime in the ministry showing up for people he might or might not even know at some of the worst moments of their lives, along with his wife, whose passions included building houses for Habitat for Humanity and sleeping under bridges with the homeless one night a year to draw attention to their problems.
So, when did Mike Huckabee — not a social moderate, but a culture warrior with heart — become the man who, several days ago, not only said that President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal is marching Israelis “to the door of the oven,” but then, after taking some time to reflect, didn’t back off at all?
When did the man who knows how much it hurts to be looked down on, based on all he’s written and said in the past about his own experiences with class, turn into someone who callously joked this past February that he wished he could have passed himself off as transgender when it came time for gym class back in high school, so he could have showered with the girls? When did the man who gave a great speech in 2007, at the 50-year commemoration of Gov. Orval Faubus’s shameful refusal to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School, morph into the one who, after nine African-American Christians were killed in a Charleston church last month, punted over whether South Carolina should take down the Confederate flag flying on Statehouse grounds?
As governor, Huckabee took on his own party to see that the children of undocumented immigrants got an education. Now he has hailed Trump as, in many ways, a late-breaking fellow traveler.
“A lot of the things that he’s saying,” Huckabee told Fox News, “those are things that, in many ways, I’ve been saying those for eight years, before he was a Republican. Things like talking about how China has cheated. Talking about how there is this Wall Street-to-Washington axis of power that grinds out jobs against Americans. I mean, these are themes that I’ve been talking about. But, let me say this, if you put as much air in my balloon, not just you, but if all the media, will pump the air in my balloon, as has been pumped into Donald Trump’s balloon, I’ll be leading the pack as well.”
This new Mike Huckabee is a creature of this primary season, according to some who’ve known him for decades. Yes, he’s always been given to hyperbole, and has occasionally been too glib by half. Long before Trump tried to freeze out the Des Moines Register, Huckabee stiff-armed the Arkansas Times out of pique with their coverage. And way back in 1992, he accused a political opponent of being a pornographer — because he supported the National Endowment for the Arts.
But now, “Huckabee has gone further than he’s ever gone before,” says Hoyt Purvis, a political commentator and journalism professor at the University of Arkansas, “and his campaign is more and more aimed, not just at the Tea Party, but the hard, hard right. I’ve been surprised at the extremes he’s gone to lately, and can only think he seems like a candidate who thinks he’s got to do this to get some notice.”
Has Donald Trump swallowed the old Mike Huckabee whole?
“He was a lot more measured when he was back here,” says longtime observer Art English, professor emeritus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “A lot of Democrats would say he was a pretty good governor.”
As Republican state Rep. Nate Bell of Arkansas sees it, there’s “always been a disconnect between his rhetoric and his record, but there are so many people in this campaign, he’s trying to do anything he can to differentiate himself.”
Republican state Sen. David Sanders says it wasn’t like Huckabee’s comment on the Iran deal came out of nowhere, because “he was pro-Israel before it was mainstream.” But then again, “this is the year of Donald Trump, and in a 16-person race, is that having an effect? I think so; why else do we see Lindsey Graham trying to destroy a cellphone, or Rand Paul taking a chainsaw to the tax code?”
James “Skip” Rutherford III, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas, considers Huckabee a friend, and thinks his outburst about the Iran deal was uncalculated. “He has this strong, very emotional tie with Israel; he’s been there a lot, and I think that’s more where this is coming from.” But then, he adds that in Little Rock, that’s the minority view. “Most people I’ve talked to think he’s trying to out-Trump Trump.”
And by definition, of course, that can’t be done. Generally speaking, candidates and other humans do best at activities in which they have some experience, and Huckabee’s own brand of off-the-cuff plain-talking has never had the edge that Trump’s has.
In 2012, almost every Republican candidate had at least a brief turn at being the favorite, because the eventual nominee wasn’t his party’s first choice but its last.
Though few expect Trump to be the nominee, the opposite is true this time, with only one GOP candidate hogging more than his fair share the attention.
But to take on the nationally best-polling candidate — which Trump has become after breaking every rule in both the presidential campaign playbook and in Republican orthodoxy — will require not an imitator but an anti-Trump, someone who, as unlikely as it seems right now, is much more like the real Mike Huckabee.
Melinda Henneberger is a columnist for Bloomberg News.