Huckabee poised to become leading evangelical politician

Mark Shields's picture

Most people who run for president, by definition, lose. And most of those unsuccessful candidates depart the presidential contest with their reputations and their influence diminished.

Republican Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor — whose chances of winning his party’s nomination are closer to none than to slim — will be a conspicuous exception. He will leave the race more popular and more influential than he entered it and with the real potential of becoming the most important evangelical leader in American political life.

Religious and cultural conservatives have been both the foundation and the foot soldiers in recent national Republican victories. But their most prominent political figures have, for the most part, been self-selected, instead of elected. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell and now James Dobson of Focus on the Family come to mind.

Pat Robertson did run for president in 1988. His high-water mark was a surprising second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses behind Bob Dole and ahead of that year’s eventual nominee, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. Eight years later, communicator Pat Buchanan upset Bob Dole in the New Hampshire primary, but quickly faded. Neither Buchanan nor Robertson ever held or sought any other elected office.

But Mike Huckabee is altogether different. By winning the Iowa caucuses in January and Feb. 5 contests in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and West Virginia, he not only eclipsed all previous candidacies, he forced — with his emphasis on public concern for the poor and on our individual and collective responsibility to be stewards of the environment — many non-evangelical voters out of their prejudiced preconceptions about what evangelicals stood for.

It did not begin with this campaign. He takes legitimate pride in his ARKids First plan to provided health insurance to the children of parents just above the poverty line. Under Gov. Huckabee, an estimated 70,000 Arkansas children, previously without insurance, were covered. In response to a state Supreme Court ruling that Arkansas’ school financing was unconstitutional, Huckabee fought for the consolidation of school districts and incurred the enmity of economic conservatives by refusing to veto a $377 million increase in the sales tax to pay for it.

As governor, he pushed for the right of the children of undocumented immigrants to be able to attend to attend state colleges at the in-state tuition rate. Bowing to withering criticism during the campaign, Mike Huckabee — to mollify the anti-immigrant Republican fever — uncourageously backpedaled on immigration.

A former Baptist minister, the economically populist Huckabee (“I’m not the Wall Street Republican, I’m the Wal-Mart Republican”) succeeded without the backing, and frequently over the express opposition of, the GOP’s most prominent religious-political leaders. He did so through his eclectic conservative message, his rare ability to talk “with” rather than “at” voters and the quickest wit in presidential politics since the late Arizona Democrat “Mo” Udall.

He once accused the Congress of “spending money like John Edwards in a beauty shop.” When asked in a televised debate, “What would Jesus do” on a controversial public policy, Huckabee expertly deflected the question: “Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office.”

The humor was not always an asset. Challenged about his foreign policy credentials, he quipped, referring to a television commercial, “I may not be the expert as some people on foreign policy, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.”

In the judgment of Republican wise man Scott Reed, Mike Huckabee could become “the national leader of evangelicals,” a position that could make him both a public and a political force. With his warmth, wit and exceptional communication skills, he could be a popular, successful talk show host. Mike Huckabee will come out of the 2008 campaign without the nomination but with enhanced earning prospects, popularity, influence and stature.


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