Handicapping Huck Again

If you think the will-they-or-won’t-they speculation over possible Democratic presidential rivals to Hillary Clinton is a bit ludicrous, steel yourself for many, many months of such noodling over the 2016 Republican field. We’ve already seen vast ink poured over the extremely unlikely prospect of a 2016 comeback by Mitt Romney. Seven weeks before the presidential cycle officially begins, there’s nothing like a front-runner in the GOP ranks, and the list of possible candidates is as long and shallow as a lap pool.

Byron York gets us rolling today with a piece on one of 2012’s notable Hamlets, Mike Huckabee, who’s said he’ll make up his mind about a 2016 run by next April.

Before reviewing York’s case for Huck, it might be interesting to look back at what was being said about him last time he was thinking about running for president. Here’s what some cracker named Ed Kilgore was writing at TNR in May of 2011 about the obstacles to a Huck win if he ran:

[T]he biggest of such hurdles is the hostility he invariably arouses in elite Republican circles. Huckabee first ran afoul of these groups in 2008, when he refused to defend George W. Bush’s handling of the economy and sounded the occasional populist notes despite his fairly orthodox fiscal positions. His record of budget compromises—including some that involved tax increases—with Democratic legislators in Arkansas was enough to arouse the formidable antipathy of Grover Norquist, who has made enforcing no-tax-increase pledges on state-level Republicans a top priority in the last decade. More generally, a war of words between Huckabee, several major conservative talk-show hosts (including Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck), and the Club for Growth faction (which Huck once termed the “Club for Greed”) has left some very bad blood that refuses to go away. The result is that if Huckabee runs in 2012, there will be a bottomless well of money and air-time available for attacks on his Arkansas record—and not just the tax increases he approved, but his exercise of executive clemency powers and the ethics allegations made against him as governor.

A second, and closely related obstacle, is Huckabee’s less-than stellar ability to raise money. His 2008 campaign ultimately raised a total of $16 million (compared to $113 million raised by Mitt Romney), with nearly half of that coming in after he won Iowa. By comparison, one of his main rivals for the affections of Iowa’s social conservatives, Michele Bachmann, raised $13 million in 2010 for a House race. Huckabee appears to be one of those politicians who either hates asking for money or is simply no good at it, and unless he can prove himself adept at the kind of grassroots fundraising methods pioneered by the Obama campaign in 2008, this could be an immediate disqualifier.

The final question dogging a potential Huckabee campaign is whether his love affair with the mainstream media—something that was absolutely crucial for him the last time around—will survive continued exposure to his world view. In the absence of impressive fundraising numbers, Huckabee’s extensive and largely favorable “earned media” in 2008 was a very important asset to his campaign. Like John McCain back in 2000, Huckabee got fawning press through exceptional affability and total accessibility, with some added bonus points for being genuinely funny and playing a passable bass guitar. Perhaps because he was considered such a good-natured long shot, few of Huckabee’s media friends took much of a serious look at exactly why this pleasant and rational-seeming man got most of his actual support from hard-core anti-abortionists and quasi-theocrats—nor did they question whether it was a good idea for an ordained Southern Baptist minister to run for president in the first place. But that could all change with a second, and more seriously regarded, Huckabee campaign. His poorly received remarks during a recent trip to Israel—in which he disparaged a two-state solution and highlighted his belief that there is actually no such thing as a Palestinian—could just be just the beginning of a rude awakening for a press corps that’s been thus far taken by the man’s considerable charm.

Interestingly, of the three obstacles I discussed back in 2011, York mentions only one, the fundraising issue (and the associated issue of his relatively modest personal wealth, which perpetually feeds suspicions he only talks about running for president to promote his “brand”). He reports that Huck himself thinks money won’t be a problem this time if he decides to run (is there perhaps some Adelson money in his future?). As for the other two problems left over from 2008, you’d have to figure Huck’s vague reputation for “populism” might now be an asset, though the “Club for Greed” is unlikely to come around. And his love affair with the MSM may already have ended, given his ever-increasing penchant for nasty right-wing demagoguery.

The real wild card with Huckabee involves the rumors kicking around all along that he used to say some really disturbing (to median voters, anyway) back when he was an active Southern Baptist minister. Even if one of his 2008 Republican rivals had him on tape promoting the fiery immolation of the planet via Israel nuking Iran or calling for the horse-whipping of uppity women, you can imagine it might not have seen the light of day in a Republican nomination contest. Since Huck himself knows what he’s said, that might even explain why he’s again taking so much time sorting through his options. It should also be noted he won’t turn 60 until next August, so we could be treated to additional equivocations for years to come.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.