WASHINGTON, D.C.- John Kennedy in 1960 and John Kerry in 2004 both pledged not to let their Catholic standing affect their policy decisions. Reporters this year are pushing Mitt Romney regarding his Mormon beliefs. But Mike Huckabee, the former Baptist pastor and Arkansas governor who now seeks the GOP presidential nomination, says he is "appalled" when candidates separate their religion from their policy positions.
"At the heart of my governing is my faith," Huckabee told WORLD on Jan. 26, the morning before he announced on Meet the Press that he was setting up a committee for a run to the White House. And what of those who say beliefs do not affect governing? "That says to me a person's faith is so inconsequential that [he] can marginalize and compartmentalize it."
Huckabee has not compartmentalized. Now 51 years old, he graduated from Ouachita Baptist University, pastored two churches in Arkansas, became president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, and governed his state for 10 years beginning in 1996. He said during our interview three blocks from the White House that moving from pastor to politician was the "easiest transition possible." He even rolled through the similarities in four-point alliteration usable in a sermon outline: "It all starts with message . . . you have to motivate people . . . use all kinds of media . . . and it takes money."
National reporters have largely refrained from zeroing in on Huckabee's theology so far, but he has received hefty publicity for becoming born-again physically. Diagnosed with Type II diabetes in 2003 and told his abundant heft threatened his heart, Huckabee lost 110 pounds and became so fit that he ran and completed the Little Rock, Marine Corps, and New York Marathons in 2005 and 2006. His own story is now part of his political pitch: Individuals can eat less, exercise more, and in the process reduce health-care costs that are threatening personal and national budgets.
But the tools of his governing style, Huckabee says, never were a knife and a fork. They were and are the words of Jesus: "I govern with two pillars: 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you,' and 'as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'" Politicians often quote such gospel words but rarely apply them. Huckabee, asked to apply these principles to three of the most divisive issues of the day, offered pointed parables:
On immigration, he told how he had just flown to Washington from the Little Rock airport where the security guards know who he is-but he still had to take the coins from his pocket and the shoes from his feet "as if I was wearing a turban on my head and went by the name of Abdul." Huckabee said he and other Americans don't object to that process, and they want immigrants to be required also to enter through an orderly process rather than a porous border: That's why a border barrier is essential. When that's in place a reasoned debate about entry can begin, because it's clear that we "only have so many seats on the airplane."
Huckabee wants those already in the United States illegally to go through a process that provides opportunity but also contains some sort of penalty for illegal activity: His religious analogy is that "one needs to confess his sin, repent, and make restitution." He said he supports something like the guest worker system President Bush has proposed, but he's wary of the guest worker term because people are equating it with an amnesty for illegals, and "I'm not for amnesty."
On foreign affairs, he told a folksy story about how every neighborhood has a kid who's the strongest, the fastest, the best-but if he acts like he knows it, he reminds others of what they aren't, and they long for the day when he fails. If that kid, though, pats others on the back and doesn't lord it over them, "everyone in the neighborhood loves that kid." Huckabee's point again is "do unto others . . . humility goes a long way. The stronger a person or a country is, the more care needs to be taken." It's "critically important never to humiliate someone else," but other countries now see the United States as the arrogant big kid.
That can readily sound like Peanuts foreign policy, but Huckabee went on to speak about the need to involve in an Iraq settlement predominantly Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt with a vested interest in the region's stability. He emphasized the need for realism that sometimes forces the United States to work with the unsavory: "Russia was not our natural ally during World War II, but better to have them on our side than on the enemy's." He was also emphatic in his support for Israel on public policy rather than eschatological grounds: "Israel is our most significant ally in the Middle East . . . [with a] shared sense of democracy."
On abortion, Huckabee is on the record as wanting Roe v. Wade to be overturned, but he also talked about a three-part process by which public views on smoking, littering, drunk driving, and wearing seat belts have changed. First is attitudinal change, when a previously accepted activity gradually is seen as undesirable. Second is a change in atmosphere-for example, people cast angry stares at someone who litters. Third is the "action phase" when government codifies what already has occurred socially.
Huckabee spoke of abortion proceeding down that path to infrequency, with pro-lifers fighting the evil but also showing the belief that "life begins at conception and it does not end at birth." He stated that "we can't call ourselves pro-lifers if we're unconcerned with education," so he has "total support for giving parents the empowerment to make decisions for their kids." He's skittish about the word vouchers, preferring school choice, and speaks of "kid-focused" rather than "school-focused" education. He asks about any proposed option, "Does it truly empower the parent to make a choice?"
Huckabee will need to show that he has substance on immigration, foreign policy, abortion, and other tough issues, because he'll do fine in the Charm Derby, as did one of his predecessors, Bill Clinton. Many observers already have noticed the similarities: Both are from Hope, Ark.; both are past Boy's State members who went on to chair the National Governors Association; both are musically inclined, with Clinton offering glissandos and growls on the saxophone and Huckabee playing bass guitar in the band Capitol Offense; both are Southern Baptists (with strikingly different theologies).
Their biggest commonality is their humble origin, which leads Huckabee to say of his background, "Some of us know what it's like to start at the bottom of the ladder." He readily describes the sins of economic and political elites: "the greed of Wall Street, the corruption of K Street." He talks about what America means for those like himself who grew up where there "wasn't a lot of money, wasn't a lot of pedigree"-but instead of descending into class warfare, Huckabee finishes his populist pitch by saying "where you finish is up to you."
Huckabee is also the anti-Clinton in that reporters feel no need to do a bimbo watch with him: Huckabee and his wife Janet apparently have a strong marriage. State-level criticism of the Huckabees peaked in 2002 when Mrs. Huckabee unsuccessfully ran for the position of Arkansas secretary of state: one couple, two state offices? Huckabee also garnered criticism for supporting the parole eligibility of convicted rapist Wayne Dumond, who after his release sexually assaulted and murdered a Missouri woman. A teapot tempest arose last November concerning gifts the Huckabees received in connection with a housewarming for a $525,000 home they purchased in Little Rock.
The national opposition cuts deeper. The anti-tax CATO Institute gave Huckabee an "F" for spending and tax policy in 2006. He responded, "I give them an F for their research: [Cato] hit me on spending" such as court-ordered educational funding. But another free enterprise think tank, the Club for Growth, also dinged him as a "tax hiker" for, among other things, raising gas taxes. Huckabee says he did it to make desperately needed highway improvements that 80 percent of Arkansans demanded.
That populist impulse could make or break the Huckabee candidacy. He has stepped outside of standard conservatism enough for Time magazine to name him one of America's "top five governors" and for Washington Post liberal columnist E.J. Dionne to praise him. Yet Huckabee also emphasizes his compassionate conservatism by noting that after Hurricane Katrina hit neighboring Louisiana "we didn't wait for FEMA" but welcomed evacuees and "provided what government can't give, dignity and respect. We called them by name, looked in their eyes."
He has won praise for starting Smart Start and Smart Step, intensive math and reading programs for K-8 students, and ARKids First, a health insurance program for low-income and minority families that helped to cut in half the state's welfare rolls. But he has garnered liberal criticism for saying that students "should be given exposure to the theories not only of evolution but to . . . creationism."
Christian conservatives generally say that Huckabee would be excellent on crucial issues such as marriage, abortion, and support for effective compassion both at home and in Africa. But his most important selling point may be his ability to turn treacherous questions into cheerful riffs on popular programs like The Daily Show. Last month host Jon Stewart told him, "You are a self-described conservative, evangelical Republican. Those strike fear into the heart of the blue state foundation." Huckabee responded with classic stereotype-affirming-while-countering "buts": "I'm a conservative, but I'm not mad at everybody. . . . I'm pro-life, but we have to be concerned . . . about a child's entire life."
Stewart has humiliated humorless conservatives yet Huckabee matched him yuk for yuk, even saying that if he had worked in partisan ways with an overwhelming Democratic legislature, "we couldn't have passed gas in the House chamber." Stewart, who lunches on double-entendres, said in his overly solemn, self-mocking way, "I don't care for that type of humor," and Huckabee responded with a grin, "I noticed." By the end of the interview Stewart was (and perhaps some moderate and younger voters were) practically eating out of the pastor-governor's hand.
Huckabee is far behind better-known Republican contenders-John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney-in the money race, but he insists that "the message has to come before money"-and his message is that "America needs to revive its national optimism." Huckabee is patriotic in his populism: "Thank God we're in a country that people are trying to break into rather than break out of." He is strong in explaining the need to fight terrorists: "We in this country celebrate life. They celebrate the deaths of their own children. . . . This war cannot be lost. . . . They're not interested in the decline of America . . . they want our deaths." He sounds Reaganesque themes: "Our best days are not behind us. They're still ahead."
He's a long shot, but don't count him out. He'll be fighting for the conservative Republican vote against another attractive candidate, Sen. Sam Brownback ("Cellblock campaign," Dec. 23, 2006), and others. And if Huckabee falls short in his presidential quest, he could serve as a ticket balancer on a slate headed by, say, a Giuliani.