During a media conference call in October, when he was riding high from his strong showing at the Values Voter Summit, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was asked how his populist economic message would sell to financially strapped Michigan voters. After arguing that a thriving stock market doesn't exactly resonate with working-class voters, Huckabee chastised his fellow Republicans for "read[ing] right off the Republican National Committee talking points" on the economy during this fall's GOP debate in Dearborn.
It was a stunning statement, with Huckabee sounding like he was reading from the opposing party's talking points as he accused Republicans of being too "busy going to upscale, nice parties with folks who haven't been impacted by a downturn in the economy." But Huckabee will say those sorts of things and then just amble on as if he hadn't frontally insulted the very people whose support he seeks, like when he accused Christian conservatives of being "more intoxicated with power than principle" shortly before the Values Voter Summit (and then denied he was speaking about the organizers of the summit).
With his steady rise in national polls and burgeoning support in Iowa, particularly among conservative Christians, hardcore movement conservatives who are trying to make the race for the Republican nomination about taxes and xenophobia are putting Huckabee's record on economic issues and immigration under the microscope. Huckabee's willingness to use government to help those economically left behind, including immigrants, has turned him into a pariah among some economic conservatives who mobilize the ground troops for the GOP's anti-tax, anti-government message that serves the corporate wing of the party, which Huckabee has accused of being a "wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street." For anyone who wonders why this charmer with a perfect record on the right’s core social litmus tests has not already wrapped up the Republican nomination, they need look no further than the disgruntled uber-conservatives who are spitting mad that Huckabee has been too nice to poor people and foreigners.
The fanatically anti-tax Club for Growth -- which Huckabee has disparaged as "the Club for Greed" -- has gotten a lot of mileage out of its portrayal of Huckabee's tenure in Arkansas as that of a "habitual tax-hiker." Huckabee has fired back, saying that the Club for Growth's figures are wrong, and besides, the Club doesn't understand what it takes to run a state government. He argues that his policies of taxing gasoline sales to pay for road construction and using state revenue to pay for poor children's health insurance did not ravage the pocketbooks of Arkansans, but provided desperately needed services to his state.
At the same time, Huckabee is working to assuage potential conservative supporters. He often speaks of his advocacy of a "fair tax" and opposition to "socialized medicine." He also claims to be the "Ronald Reagan conservative" the GOP is looking for, which suggests his Robin Hood image could go the way of school lunch vegetables once he hits the oval office. "If Reagan were running today," Huckabee said last week, "the Club for Growth would be running ads against him." Governing a state is different from heading the federal government, Huckabee went on, and even the Gipper raised taxes as governor of California. So does that mean Huckabee's America would be different from Huckabee's Arkansas? He seems to imply that the answer is yes.
While Huckabee fights off accusations of being a "big government" liberal from the likes of conservative movement icon Phyllis Schlafly and pundits Robert Novak and Jonah Goldberg, he still has his defenders in the anti-government crowd. Conservative activist Star Parker, author of Uncle Sam's Plantation: How Big Government Enslaves the Poor and What We Can Do About It came to Huckabee's defense, concluding that his advocacy for "free market" initiatives for health care, the "fair tax," and elimination of the payroll tax are all sufficient to allay concerns raised by the Club for Growth.
But if you're curious as to why, much to the bewilderment of many observers, the GOP hasn't thrown its weight behind the vaunted Huckabee charm, look no further than a recent campaign by Arkansas Republicans and movement conservatives to deride Huckabee's conservative credentials in the press and to derail him in the behind-the-scenes quest for big name endorsements. As a result of their efforts, said Peggy Jeffries, a Republican who served in the Arkansas state senate from 1996 to 2000 and on the Republican National Committee from 2000-2004, some "very public names have backed off endorsing him."
While George W. Bush successfully garnered the support of the entire base by cravenly marketing himself as a "compassionate conservative," Huckabee's policy decisions that could actually be construed as compassionate are savaged by his conservative opposition as un-American, anti-family, and -- cue the B-monster movie music -- liberal. Talking to Arkansas Republicans, it becomes clear that the conservative effort to torpedo Huckabee's candidacy is both part of an internecine struggle to define conservatism in the post-Bush era, as well as a media campaign to settle old political scores.
"I remember how charmed we were by him," sighed Jeffries. But after "misrepresenting" himself to the conservative base, she said, Huckabee betrayed them once in office by raising taxes and championing policies that, in her view, promoted the illegal immigration that "has totally changed the fiber of our small communities." Former State Senator (and now chair of the Arkansas Eagle Forum) Randy Minton demeaned Huckabee's "preacher mentality" in demanding that taxpayers "pass the plate."
At the CNN/YouTube debate last week, Huckabee defended his support for a provision that would have allowed children of illegal immigrants who had attended school in Arkansas to compete with other students for scholarships. Under attack by Mitt Romney for advocating "taxpayer-funded breaks that are better than our own citizens," Huckabee didn't try to match Romney's pandering to the nativist, anti-tax base. Instead, he implied that Romney didn't get it because he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. "I worked my way through college," Huckabee said pointedly. "I had to pay my own way through... If I hadn't had the education, I wouldn't be standing on this stage. I might be picking lettuce."
Jeffries and Minton pooh-poohed Huckabee's efforts to portray himself as a populist, and repeated anti-Huckabee memes that have been floating around in conservative media outlets for years -- charges that are now reverberating on blogs and creeping into newspapers. One talking point is that Huckabee called anti-immigration Republicans "Shiites" (meaning, said Minton, that he thought they were too radically right). Another is that he told the Republican sponsor of a bill requiring immigrants to provide proof of their legal status to obtain state services that he drank a "different kind of Jesus juice." These stories, to which the Huckabee campaign has not responded, have become a rallying cry for his opponents on the right, and just last week the "Jesus juice" quote made its way into an Associated Press story that read like an anti-Huckabee conservative playbook.
Patrick Briney, the head of the Arkansas Republican Assembly, has consolidated the anti-Huckabee rancor in a tome on what he calls "Huckabee's Republican Paradox." Huckabee, Briney maintains, talks like a Republican but really doesn’t act like one and is therefore a "RINO" -- a Republican in name only. The Republican Assemblies -- there is one in every state -- are part of the umbrella National Federation of Republican Assemblies (NFRA), all dedicated to recruiting conservative Republicans to run for office, restoring the party to conservatism "in the tradition of the founding fathers," rooting out offending Republicans, and maintaining the "integrity" of the GOP platform. The assemblies' discontent with the Republican field is evidence of the GOP's profound identity crisis: at its summer convention, the NFRA was unable to coalesce around a candidate, splitting its support between Fred Thompson (winner of its straw poll) and Duncan Hunter (who won a leadership vote, but not a supermajority required for an endorsement). Huckabee, said Briney, "is virtually a no-show among" the state assemblies. (Apparently the party's other frontrunners, Romney and Rudy Giuliani, are also insufficiently Republican for NFRA.)
The charge that Huckabee is soft on immigration is starting to reverberate in the conservative media echo chamber, which could hurt him in early primary states in which he is on an upswing, like Iowa, where immigration is a big issue. Jerome Corsi, co-author of the Swift Board Veterans for Truth attack book on John Kerry, Unfit for Command, has used his space at World Net Daily to write repeatedly about a deal Huckabee struck with the Mexican government to build a consulate in Little Rock. Huckabee's offenses, according to Corsi, were unearthed by Joe McCutcheon, an anti-immigration extremist and a long-time opponent of the consulate deal. Consulate proponents, including Huckabee, argued that the consulate was needed to provide Mexican immigrants with work permits and visas to gain employment legally. But anti-immigration activists relentlessly attack Huckabee for it as well as policies such as providing pre-natal care to immigrants. In one of Corsi's articles, McCutcheon called Huckabee "a multi-culturalist who has done more to damage this state than any other governor of Arkansas... He is not a man of the people."
But Joe Carter, who published an exasperated dissection of the Club for Growth's claims on his blog, evangelicaloutpost.com, before taking a leave of absence from his day job at the Family Research Council to work as Huckabee's research director, issued a warning to anti-Huckabee conservatives. "If conservatives want to ensure that the Democrats remain in power for the next decade," Carter wrote, "let's publicly bash any politician that wants to provide health care for indigent children."
It's still to early to say whether Huckabee is truly dedicated to unraveling the conservative effort to roll Christianity, corporate sponsorship, and nativism into one package. His promises to govern like Reagan could be real, or they could just be an attempt to make his conservative adversaries happy. But his ascendancy among primary voters should be telling the RINO-hunters something: after the last eight years, a RINO might be just what Republican minions are looking for.