Having served as a Baptist pastor in Arkansas before a decade-long tenure as the state’s governor, Huckabee in 2008 showed signs of becoming an insurgent populist candidate. He won the Iowa GOP caucuses and came in second to Sen. John McCain in the overall Republican delegate count. I myself really liked Huckabee: He had great executive experience, stronger social conservative credentials than McCain or Mitt Romney, and he deftly advocated the kind of “compassionate conservatism” that might work well in a general election.
How far Huckabee has fallen.
Early polling shows that Huckabee has indeed retained significant support among just the sorts of people you would expect – evangelicals, presumably of the sort who watched his show on Fox. But among conservative Christian voters, there are many other choices, and Huckabee is no longer the flavor of the month. Ben Carson, Sen. Marco Rubio, former Texas governor Rick Perry and others seem more current. Tellingly, even the Southern Baptist Convention has steered clear of Huckabee this year.
The SBC extended, and then rescinded, an offer to Ben Carson (an Adventist) to speak at their pastors’ conference this year. Next week at an SBC missions conference, Ethics and Religious Liberty president Russell Moore will interview Jeb Bush (a Catholic) and Marco Rubio (a Catholic who sometimes visits an SBC church). Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) declined to participate in the event. But no invitations were sent to Huckabee.
One of the best things that the governor had going for him in 2008 was that he had fresh experience in public leadership, having stepped down as governor only a year earlier. Faced with the decision of what to do next, Huckabee made a fatal decision for any general election candidate: He became a Fox News contributor.
As popular as Fox is among many GOP primary voters, Huckabee and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin both “jumped the shark,” as they say, by becoming ensconced there. They exchanged their promising gubernatorial records for the easy unseriousness afforded by a Fox gig. Palin has since tried to move on to greener fields by launching the “Sarah Palin Channel.” Huckabee stayed at Fox for seven years, until his pursuit of another presidential bid forced him to leave this year.
It is hard for former governors to choose what to do next if they have presidential ambitions. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Florida governor Jeb Bush took a more promising route by staying behind the scenes and supporting other GOP candidates. Their path may have missed some opportunities to build popular support in the primaries, but in both cases it seems to have built up far more good will and financial support for the prospective general election cycle. For Palin, and probably for Huckabee, Fox News proved the kiss of death.
Fox’s cozy confines allow candidates to get into an insulated mindset, in which they are not used to having to face critical reporters or be accountable for outlandish statements. You knew something was going wrong with Huckabee in 2011 when, at a “Rediscover God in America” conference, he sang the praises of the widely discredited Christian history writer and Republican Party activist David Barton. Huckabee said that he “almost wished” that “all Americans would be forced — forced at gunpoint no less — to listen to every David Barton message.” A year later, a massive outcry led by evangelical and Catholic scholars forced an embarrassed Thomas Nelson Publishers to pull Barton’s book “The Jefferson Lies” from circulation.
Earlier this summer Huckabee was about the only public figure willing to stand by his longtime supporter Josh Duggar in light of child sexual abuse allegations. Now we have Huckabee’s extreme statements about how the president is leading Jews to the gas chambers. If Huckabee meant to get attention, it worked. Many of the second-tier GOP candidates are looking for ways to break into the discussion – and take some of the attention from the even-less-serious Donald Trump — in advance of the first Republican debate.
Playing the Holocaust card is not the right way to get attention, though. Whatever you think of the Iran nuclear deal (and there are serious reasons to oppose it), comments about the murderous intentions of the president are ridiculous. They are unhelpful even if all you hope to do is help derail the agreement. Huckabee just pitched a softball to the president, who can now legitimately cast his opponents as unserious people.
Evangelical political allegiances in the primaries are unpredictable, to be sure. But when you’re looking for a new president of the United States, most people want a better “most recent position” than Fox News contributor.