Mike Huckabee gets serious in a big way

The former Arkansas governor has finally found the idea maven -- Jim Pinkerton -- to add heft to his just-folks shtick.

Published January 12, 2008 2:00AM (EST)

Mike Huckabee is the funniest Republican contender, the only GOP presidential candidate with a sure grasp of populist rhetoric and the rags-to-riches champion of this presidential cycle. But, up to now, his grasp of the nuances of domestic and foreign policy has been about on par with Mitt Romney's understanding of late fees on a MasterCard bill.

Huckabee's advocacy of a national sales tax seemingly came courtesy of the folks on the Fair Tax bus that dogged Republican candidates in Iowa. Under fire from Romney for being soft on the children of undocumented workers, Huckabee simply lifted a get-tough immigration plan from the Minutemen (the group's co-founder Jim Gilchrist endorsed him) but then could not defend the zigzag contradictions in his record on "Meet the Press." And, of course, Huckabee was the presidential candidate who spent 30 hours without a staffer to tell him (or the curiosity to learn by picking up a stray newspaper) that a new National Intelligence Estimate had revealed that -- whoops! -- Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program after all.

Huckabee's cavalier attitude towards policy ended abruptly Friday afternoon with the announcement that Jim Pinkerton, long one of the smartest idea mavens in the Republican Party, had signed on as a senior adviser to the former Arkansas governor. Pinkerton -- a Newsday columnist, commentator on Fox News and a fellow at the centrist New American Foundation -- earned his spurs as a young policy advisor to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Pinkerton, in fact, in the first Bush administration was pushing a series of policy ideas (billed as the "New Paradigm") which were similar in anti-bureaucratic spirit to the "New Democrat" ideology of Bill Clinton in 1992.

What is most intriguing about Pinkerton is his instinctive grasp of Huckabee's rhetorical fusion of social conservatism and economic populism. In a favorable review of a William Jennings Bryan biography in 2006 in the American Conservative, Pinkerton wrote, "[The] description of Democratic virtues in the Bryan era sounds more like Republican ideals today. And that might explain why the Democratic voters of yesterday are the Republican voters of today. If one were to look at an electoral college map of Bryan's elections, one would see that the red-blue pattern is virtually the mirror image of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections."

While Pinkerton's review did not mention Huckabee (who then was an asterisk as a presidential possibility), the former Baptist pastor is the Republican with the potential to recreate Bryanism (from its little-guy economic concerns to his opposition to evolution) for the 21st century. What Huckabee has lacked is a top-level adviser to layer some intellectual heft and policy realism onto the candidate's make-it-up-every-morning improvisational style.

Of course, Pinkerton -- like anyone who has been composing sideline political commentary for the last 15 years -- has written paragraphs that now seem comically out-of-step with his new candidate. In Slate in 1999, Pinkerton unequivocally declared, "The American electorate doesn't want to hear about God's Law -- certainly not from politicians...Even Republicans don't want to hear from Him through vote-seeking prophets."

Pinkerton was referring to Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential campaign. But Robertson never was a plausible White House contender, even though he finished second in the Iowa caucuses. Huckabee, who won Iowa and finished ahead of Rudy Giuliani in secular New Hampshire, is now vying with John McCain in South Carolina for the role of GOP frontrunner. And Huckabee's claim to be a serious candidate (rather than, say, the Jesse Ventura of the Republican Party) just went way up with the hiring of Pinkerton. Win or lose, Huckabee is going to be a fascinating candidate to watch.

By Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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2008 Elections Mike Huckabee