Most reporters and pundits didn’t see Mike Huckabee coming. When they took note of him at all, they wrote him off as an amusing oddity. Here was a Baptist minister turned lieutenant governor who had lucked into the job of Arkansas governor after legal troubles felled Clinton crony Jim Guy Tucker.
Huckabee had lost more than a hundred pounds; run marathons; written bestselling books; entertained voters with his bass guitar, comic timing, and storytelling skills; and managed to land actor Chuck Norris’ endorsement.
He was considered an entertaining sideshow in the US presidential threering circus, nothing more. Maybe, the thinking went, if he was nice to the other Republican candidates and lucky, Huckabee could be Mitt Romney’s running mate, to convince evangelicals to vote for a Mormon, or Rudy Giuliani’s number two, to placate testy social conservatives.
Instead, Huckabee nearly stole the show. The first stirrings of this could be seen last October, when he spoke to conservative Christian activists from all over America, brought together bythe Family Research Council in Washington, DC for a “Values Voters Summit.”
Huckabee began with a few anti-liberal jokes to warm up the crowd and then settled into his speech. “I come today not as one who comes to you but as one who comes from you,” Huckabee humbly yet confidently announced. The Arkansan said that he and other socalled values voters are so called because “we are defined by what we value . . . what’s non-negotiable for us, what matters more than anything else in the world when we go and vote.”
Those values were not terribly controversial at first blush: “The value of freedom. The value of family. The value of faith.” It was how Huckabee chose to unpack those items that brought the crowd to its feet repeatedly, stomping and laughing and yelling “Amen!”
Huckabee used “freedom” to bring together a range of items, from the war on “Islamofascism” to immigration, from a national Fair Tax abolishing the IRS to promoting energy independence and bringing US judges who cite international law to heel.
It was well received but standard conservative Republican fare, though in the candidate’s worries about “outsourcing” one could already see the fiscally conservative wing of the party start to wince. What came next, however, wasn’t at all standard.
Huckabee brought up the efforts to ward off gay marriage through state and federal legislation and complained that gay activists had managed to paint the traditionalists as naysayers only when “[w]e are for something. We are for marriage.”
He endorsed a marriage amendment to the US Constitution and decried those who are unwilling to amend the nation’s charter but more than willing to “change the holy Word of God . . . We do not have the right to move the standards of God to meet new cultural norms; we need to move the cultural norms to meet God’s standards.”
Huckabee also spoke of “the intrinsic worth and value of every single human life” and condemned the “Holocaust of liberalized abortion” that should be ended through court ruling or constitutional amendment. “The new value needs to be the old value,” he summarized.
Press accounts focused on the thinly veiled shot Huckabee took at the only recently pro-life former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney for “mere-ly lip-sync[ing] the lyrics to our songs” and “[having] more positions on issues than Elvis had waist sizes,” but far more important than these quips was his declaration of independence from the Republican Party. He exhorted the crowd, “Our party may be important, but our principles are even more important.”
Those words were the start of the Huckabean Revolt, to revise the name of a rigorist Jewish uprising in Palestine in the second century BC. The Family Research Council event had been organized in the hope that the divided American Christian conservatives would settle on a candidate. But Huckabee’s speech changed all that. When the event’s straw poll results were announced, Huckabee won the majority of those people who voted on site. Romney managed to squeak out a win, but only by organizing an online vote drive. Major evangelicals didn’t rush to endorse Romney as he had hoped.
Nor in their first electoral match-up could the former Massachusetts governor pull out a victory, despite massive advantages. Huckabee’s disorganized campaign, which was funded on a shoestring, beat Romney by 10 points in the Iowa caucuses in early January, though Romney had poured millions of dollars into the state and invested countless hours speaking at town hall meetings and coffee shop klatches.
Then, on Super Tuesday in early February, Huckabee won contests in West Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and very nearly Missouri and Washington state. In the South Carolina and Virginia primaries, the Arkansan’s campaign came very close to beating Arizona Senator John McCain, but was hurt when ice storms disproportionately affected areas slated to turn out for Huckabee. This, predictably, led some commentators to comment sophomorically that God had withdrawn his support from the preacherturned- politician.
Except for a few moments after his victory in Iowa, the press tended to downplay or explain away Huckabee’s successes. As a Christian conservative, he simply did not fit into the larger media narrative.
The role that American Catholics played in the Huckabee campaign was a complicated one. It’s true that some of his supporters and endorsers were Catholic, such as the ironically named blog Cafeteria Catholics for Mike Huckabee. Dr. Robert Stackpole, a professor of theology from Redeemer Pacific College, went so far as to assert that Huckabee was “the most ‘Catholic’ candidate on the ballot” for an article at Catholic Online.
Huckabee, he wrote, was the presidential candidate “whose viewpoints seem most ‘in sync’ with the Church’s guidance” on the issues it considers most important—preserving the family and the sanctity of human life. Yet this still didn’t translate into a large Catholic vote for Huckabee (against McCain he received less than 30 percent of support from Catholics).
That Americans have long believed clergy should not run for office no doubt contributed to his troubles. In Puritan New England clergy were barred from doing so and there is still a slight bias against voting for a pastor, and not necessarily for anticlerical reasons. Many people simply believe that ministers are set apart for something far more important than politics. This impulse is, if anything, more pronounced in Catholics, especially after the Vatican ordered priests to steer clear of elective office.
Then there was the culture clash. Huckabee may have spent 14 years in state government, but he still talked and acted like what he was, an ordained Baptist minister. Some Catholics may have found that off-putting— a problem accentuated by a small flap over the fact that Huckabee preached at Cornerstone Church, which is pastored by the anti-Catholic Reverend John Hagee.
At the same time, Mitt Romney was running to be the first Mormon president. He gave a speech that was both similar to and very different from Catholic President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech to Houston preachers in 1960. Like Kennedy, Romney made it clear that he wouldn’t be taking marching orders from his religious body, but then Romney turned around and attacked secularism in the name of shared religious values. The speech didn’t win over many evangelical voters but it seems to have had an effect on Catholics.
This religious divide was utterly lost on many of Huckabee’s detractors. In early January, a Utah public radio station aired “another Huckabee family recipe leaked by his opponents.” The announcer asked, “Tired of bland unsatisfying Eucharists? Try this Huckabee family favorite. Deep-Fried Body of Christ—boring holy wafers no more. Take one Eucharist. Preferably post transubstantiation. Deep-fry in fat, not vegetable oil, ladies, until crispy. Serve piping hot. Mike likes to top his Christ with whipped cream and sprinkles. But his wife Janet and the boys like theirs with heavy gravy and cream puffs. It goes great with red wine.”
Of course, the group that protested this smear most vigorously was not the Huckabee campaign but the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. President Bill Donohue demanded an investigation, and called the bit “despicable on several counts: it is blasphemous and bigoted. But it may also be motivated by a political calculus, making it really dirty if it is.”
What would have happened if Huckabee had found a way of winning over more Catholic voters? It is hard to say. Perhaps it might have tipped a few states in his favor. But what’s clear is that whatever happens at the Republican convention, Mike Huckabee will almost certainly play a prominent role in the future of the GOP. He earned that place not by being a nice guy but by refusing to negotiate with establishment Republicans.
After Romney dropped out of the race in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, I drifted into the lobby of the Omni Shoreham and saw Jim Pinkerton, the gangly opinion journalist who had recently signed up as an adviser to the Huckabee campaign. How long would Huckabee stay in it, now that McCain was that much closer to locking it up? I asked him. Pinkerton was defiant. They would be in this all the way to the bitter end, he said.
When Huckabee spoke to the convention, he also conceded nothing, which was wise because he went on to destroy McCain in the Kansas caucuses that weekend, beat him in Louisiana, and only narrowly lost in Washington state. He would later drop out after losing to McCain in Texas and Ohio, but that he even got that far suggests the Huckabean Revolt may shake up the GOP for years to come.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!