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
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
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
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.