POLITICS DECEMBER 31, 2007
Spend enough time on the road with Mike Huckabee these days and you're likely to hear the story of the Razorbacks stadium blanket. The now-notorious blanket came into being during Huckabee's 2002 reelection campaign, when it was quilted by an enthusiastic supporter and passed to a Huckabee aide, who later presented it to the governor. Huckabee's staff reported the gift in an ethics filing the following January. But its estimated $50 value struck a local journalist as suspiciously low. The journalist called the quilter, the quilter priced her handiwork at $200, and suddenly a scandal was born. Huckabee finally returned the blanket to put an end to the affair, only to have the woman confess that it was worth $50 after all.
As it happens, the stadium blanket story is part of a ritual Huckabee performs when he's asked about the ethical misdemeanors he allegedly committed as governor. Once he's done lamenting the great blanket caper, Huckabee will sometimes recall the time he was investigated for printing campaign flyers on a $10 ream of office paper--an apparently questionable mix of state and political activity. In these cases, Huckabee can resemble a budget watchdog from the 1980s--the people who'd hold press conferences denouncing the Pentagon's $600 toilet seats and $400 hammers. Except that, for Huckabee, the point isn't to demonstrate how absurdly expensive an item was, but how absurdly cheap. "The reason I'm walking you through this is because I want you to see how ridiculous some of this stuff is," he'll say.
Two things cross your mind when you witness this slightly bizarre display. The first is how anyone could mistake such a plainspoken and charming man for a serial ethics violator. ("Being a Republican in my state is tantamount to being a fire hydrant in a neighborhood of dogs," Huckabee said recently. I defy you to name a bona fide embezzler who actually talks like this.) The second thing you notice is how modest and downscale Huckabee's world was until now. Fifty-dollar blankets? Ten-dollar reams of paper? Was this guy a governor or the head of an Elks lodge?
It may not be a stretch to say Huckabee has quipped his way to the GOP's top tier. Certainly he can thank the quips for the press's infatuation with him. Most journalists had never written "witty" and "evangelical Christian" in the same sentence before, so Huckabee was something of a revelation.
In fact, Huckabee's a familiar type in the evangelical world--the pastor who garnishes his sermons with corny punch lines to make the scripture go down easier. Often you get the feeling Huckabee is cribbing from lines he's field-tested in the pews. "People asked me when I ran for office in Arkansas if all the Baptists were active in my campaign," he recalled at a recent campaign event. "I said, 'Every one of them were active. Half for me, half against me, but they all were active.'" That non-evangelical voters and journalists find these flourishes novel says more about how marginal evangelical culture is than it does about Huckabee himself. Just imagine how exotic it would be to hear Joe Lieberman joke about his Jewish mother if no one had ever heard of Woody Allen or Jerry Seinfeld, and you begin to understand the appeal.
Huckabee's evangelicalism is, in some respects, an expression of his working-class roots. Piety and poverty were strongly correlated in the South of Huckabee's youth--and Huckabee's denomination, the Baptists, was more pious than most. Still, it's sometimes striking how much class informs Huckabee's worldview. The GOP has spent a generation blurring class distinctions, uniting blue-collar Christians and tax-cutting plutocrats. Huckabee's candidacy takes aim at that achievement.
Everyone's heard Huckabee riff about class. At a recent debate, he lectured Mitt Romney on the value of working one's way through college, and he's prone to railing against corporate America. On the campaign trail this week, he pitched himself as a president "who's not the country club Republican, but the Boys and Girls club kind of Republican." He delighted in how "some of the folks in the Wall Street-Washington axis have not been all that thrilled with me."
Just as interesting, however, are the more subtle ways that class figures into Huckabee's spiel--everything from his pop-culture allusions ("Larry the Cable Guy") to his culinary tastes (Olive Garden) to his interests in public policy. A few hours after this month's debate in Des Moines, I attended a talk he gave at a local medical school. Huckabee, who lost 100 pounds when his doctor spotted symptoms of Type II diabetes, is never more fluent than when talking about the disease. "What's really scary is that … fifty years ago there was no such thing as a pre-teen diagnosed with Type II diabetes," he said. "Today, as many as a dozen cases a week will be seen in the typical pediatric hospital--kids as young as seven and eight years old." He blamed this on an epidemic of childhood obesity.
After Huckabee finished, it occurred to me that you rarely see upper-middle-class kids with Type II diabetes. The children he's talking about are mostly poor and working class.
One measure of Huckabee's success is his tally of what you might call strange-bedfellow endorsements. This is the endorsement that ensues when the endorsee and endorser disagree on a number of prominent issues, but the endorser sets aside these differences in the interest of some greater struggle, on which he and the endorsee see eye-to-eye. A perfect example was Pat Robertson's recent endorsement of Rudy Giuliani, which he explained thusly: "To me, the overriding issue before the American people is the defense of our population from the bloodlust of Islamic terrorists."
What's interesting about Huckabee's strange-bedfellow endorsements is that they tend to come with an additional twist: Often Huckabee and his endorser don't even agree on the issue the endorser cares most about. At least, that seemed to be the case when, on a recent morning in Western Iowa, Huckabee strode into a Holiday Inn conference room with a man named Jim Gilchrist.
Gilchrist is the founder of the Minuteman Project, the civilian corps that patrols the Southern border in search of shifty-looking brown people. Huckabee is the governor who once tried making illegal immigrants eligible for in-state tuition at Arkansas universities. No sooner had Gilchrist, a short, glassy-eyed man with a faintly bullying presence, praised Huckabee's plan to stem our "illegal alien invasion" than did reporters start badgering him about Huckabee's record. All Gilchrist would say is, "Whatever the governor might have done ten or twenty years ago regarding this issue, that was then."
When I later spoke to Gilchrist, who worked at a car wash before joining the Marines and attending college on the G.I. Bill, he elaborated on his endorsement. "I think we really need somebody in tune with the people, not scholars," he told me. "Just a reasonable man or reasonable woman approach." They may disagree about immigration, but it turns out Jim Gilchrist is a Mike Huckabee-style populist.
To chip away at Huckabee's lead in Iowa, Romney will spend the final two weeks before the caucuses mounting a two-pronged attack. First, he'll argue that Huckabee is out of step with the GOP base on a number of issues-- that he's, in effect, a liberal. Every day, I get a new e-mail from the Romney campaign pointing out the hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes Huckabee raised or the thousand-plus pardons and commutations he granted. The problem is that the GOP has spent the last 30 years associating conservatism primarily with culture-war issues like abortion and gay marriage. It's going to be tough for Romney to undo all this and convince people the former Baptist minister is a closet pinko.
That leaves plan B: paint Huckabee as a back-country rube who, as National Review's Rich Lowry has put it, "is manifestly unprepared to be president." This effort has spawned its own line of cutting e-mails, titled "no laughing matter," which juxtapose Huckabee's head against a Holiday Inn Express logo. (Huckabee begged off a foreign policy question in a recent interview by joking, "I may not be the expert that some people are on foreign policy, but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night.") One e-mail this week lampooned Huckabee's crude national security instincts under the headline, "someone who hasn't thought much about foreign policy."
This tack may work, but it's not without risk. "It'll be an amazing journey when the White House is occupied by somebody who's not necessarily Ivy League, but who everybody else has written off as bush league," Huckabee said the other day in West Des Moines. There may be a lot of blue-collar Republicans who feel the same way.