By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
The presidential candidate was talking about the threat of outsourcing and the immorality of corporate chief executives getting huge bonuses while workers' pension plans go bust.
"When CEOs are making 500 times the average wage of their worker, how can you justify that?" he asked. "I think a president ought to call out companies . . . in which the CEO leads his company into bankruptcy . . . and gets a $100 million bonus while the workers down below end up losing their jobs and have worked 20 and 30 years for pensions and they're gone. . . . That's immoral. . . . And that's not free enterprise; that's theft."
Standard presidential primary fare, perhaps, except that the candidate speaking was a Republican, and a conservative Christian one at that: former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. A long shot for his party's nomination, certainly, yet Huckabee, a Baptist minister, is not the cartoon Christian conservative of popular imagining.
He's got, as he put it, "the purity of credentials," but Huckabee's menu of social conservatism offers more choices than implacable opposition to abortion and gay rights.
"Being a conservative is also about having a much broader agenda than the very narrowly focused one that sometimes conservatives are either accused of or -- frankly -- can be guilty of," Huckabee said last week at a luncheon hosted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Huckabee, 51, has the air of the nice neighbor who wanders by to discuss your crabgrass problem. "I'm a conservative," he said, "but I'm not mad at anybody about it."
I am not now and never will be a Huckabee voter. There may not be a single major issue on which we agree, from stem cell research to Guantanamo detainees, from tax policy to immigration reform. This is, after all, a man who believes schools should teach creationism (alongside evolution) but not contraception. He has spoken of the need to "take this nation back for Christ" -- though he says, "I'd probably phrase it a little differently today."
But listening to Huckabee, I was struck by his interest in the bread-and-butter issues getting short shrift, especially from Republican candidates, in an Iraq-dominated campaign.
Not that you could tell from debates, when Huckabee tends to get so many God questions that, as he notes, you'd think he was running for Senate chaplain, not president.
"I'm happy to give my answer . . . but I'm thinking, you know, tonight, all over America, there were families sitting down to dinner, and I doubt that any of them . . . said, 'I wonder what the next president will think about evolution,' " said Huckabee.
"Here is what I think they talked about: How are we going to afford gasoline at $3-plus a gallon? What is going to happen if our kid breaks his arm in the playground at school? Can we pay for the doctor bills and also pay the rent at the first of the month? Will we be able to save enough money for our kids to go to college, and if they do, are we going to be so in debt that it will take every dime of our life savings to get them a higher education? Families are wondering, if Dad loses his job this Friday and gets the pink slip, and his job goes to China, and he is 50-plus years old, where is he going to go to work?"
This sounds more like John Edwards's Two Americas than like any of the Republican front-runners.
Huckabee traces his pragmatic conservatism to his 10 1/2 years as governor -- a job in which "you can't afford the luxury of being an ideologue." One of his signature accomplishments was ARKids First, a program -- passed before the similar Clinton administration initiative -- to provide health insurance for low-income children not eligible for Medicaid.
None of this will matter if Huckabee can't scrape up enough money to keep his campaign afloat. His first-quarter take was a pitiful $544,879. He's at 5 percent in the latest New Hampshire poll -- and that was up from the pre-debate 1 percent.
After the lunch, I happened to see one of Huckabee's fellow former governors and marathon running buddy, Iowa Democrat Tom Vilsack.
"I've always thought he was the dark horse in the race," said Vilsack, who dropped out of the campaign for lack of funds. If Huckabee can avoid that fate, Vilsack said, "I think there is room for Mike Huckabee" in Iowa, where evangelicals "are pretty serious caucus-goers."
President Huckabee would not be my choice. But a Republican field with candidate Huckabee in it is a more interesting place -- if, that is, anyone pays attention to something besides whether he thinks humans descended from apes.