Cover Story

The pastor populist

"The pastor populist" Continued...

Issue: "Marathon man," Feb. 17, 2007

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."

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