Religious right's warped icon: Why Mike Huckabee is wingnuts' best white hope for '16

Imagine the smug smile of the Gipper plus the nasty politics of Ted Cruz. Why it's a mistake to count Huckabee out

By Heather Digby Parton


Published September 17, 2014 10:59AM (EDT)

  (AP/Keith Srakocic)
(AP/Keith Srakocic)

Anyone starting to pay attention to the wide open Republican 2016 presidential field has to have wondered why in the world the charismatic, rock-star preacher TV celebrity from Arkansas hadn't made any moves to join the race.  In a field dominated by, well ... nobody ... you'd think that the guitar-playing former Gov. Mike Huckabee would see that the nation is inevitably going to turn its desperate eyes to him. But until a poll out of Iowa showed Huckabee in first place -- way ahead of his next rival Paul Ryan -- there was hardly even a whisper of his name in pundit circles. Now it's everywhere.

Byron York reported that Huckabee called reporters together yesterday for a wide-ranging conversation about the Middle East (he's very concerned) and a possible presidential run and it looks like he's getting back in the saddle. York observes that unlike his run in 2008 where he lamented all the chatter about Iraq, he's going straight at foreign policy as the focus of his campaign, rather than domestic issues, which would appear to signal that the GOP is getting back in its comfortable groove. (Not that this should come as a surprise -- Benghazi!™  was a pretty good first clue.)

Some of this reticence to put their hopes and dreams once again in the other man from Hope is understandable.  After all, he declined to join the losing GOP clown show in 2012 after having made a fairly decent showing in 2008. (What most people would call having good political instincts is often seen among the faithful as a sign of disloyalty.)  In that race, Rick Santorum was left to carry the banner for the Christian right pretty much by himself and while he did a surprisingly respectable job of sticking it out to the bitter end, there's really nobody in the world who can see him sitting in the Oval Office, not even his own voters.  Huckabee, on the other hand, has long been seen as a serious contender and for good reason. Nobody else in the Republican game today has his particular combination of political gifts. Why they're almost, dare I say it, Reaganesque.

David Freedlander of the Daily Beast profiled Huckabee a few months back and observed that his once sunny-ish persona has been replaced with an angry fire-and-brimstone messenger of doom.  It appears that the "Caring Mike" who once angered Grover Norquist with his "populist" apostasy about taxing a couple of rich guys for the illusory common good has transformed into "Mean Mike" who says the women of America "believe that they are helpless with Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of government," and wonders why it is that Christians "take it in the teeth time and time again." Freedlander says that people who know Huckabee are divided about what's responsible for this change. One side says it's Huckabee the politician who has adapted his style to the political zeitgeist. The world is darker and meaner than it was in 2008, they say, and so he is simply reflecting the mood of the people. The other side says that he's acquired a special conservative form of Stockholm syndrome, which happens to those who spend all their time in the right-wing noise machine, which is a very, very angry place.

And there may be a little truth in both theories. After all, Huckabee laid out of the 2012 race for very good political reasons -- it was likely unwinnable, after all, and Romney was the favorite to win as the "turnaround artist" in a moribund economy. But he was also making serious money for the first time in his life as a TV and radio celebrity in the dark world of conservative media. He immersed himself in the anger and resentment required to thrive there and he did.

Regardless of his motives for changing his approach from a compassionate conservative to hardcore right-wing zealot, people are wondering just which one is the real Mike. And the fact is that it's both. And it's always been both. Mike Huckabee has that rare political ability to reach around to deliver a stiletto to the back while smiling to your face. Just as Reagan was able to make people laugh at others' expense while seeming to stay above his own insults (case in point: "A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah"), Huckabee can deliver a nasty line with the kind of humor that will appeal to the insensitive among us without getting in too much trouble with the normal people. Here's just one example: "We've had a Congress that's spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop."

That line embodies everything creepy about Mike Huckabee -- and that conservatives love about him. It comes from that beloved anti-government, small town, 1950s perspective, it's personal and nasty and it's got a nice tinge of macho homophobia. It's also clever (at least compared to the usual drab humor offered by conservative politicians). But perhaps this illustrates his talent even better: "Whether we need to send somebody to Mars, I don't know. But I'll tell you what, if we do, I've got a few suggestions, and maybe Hillary could be on the first rocket." (Did I mention the 1950s perspective? To the moon, Alice.) Here's another one. When asked whether he believed in evolution he dodged with this bon mot: "If anybody wants to believe they're the descendants of a primate, they'e welcome to do it." He's that good.

Back in 2012, Ed Kilgore wondered whether Huckabee could actually make the move since the big shots in the party like Norquist and the big money boys didn't care for Huck's populist tendencies. And the idea of giving up his lucrative career as a media celebrity had to play into it as well. But it appears that he may have successfully transformed himself into a vicious Tea Partying wingnut without missing a beat and he's certainly earned himself millions in the intervening years between 2008 and today. The only question now is whether he can raise money.

Yesterday he said he didn't think he would have any problem doing that and announced that he's started an organization called America Takes Action, which he claims has already managed to collect over seven figures. His foreign policy commentary seemed virtually designed to appeal to mega-billionaire Sheldon Adelson, so perhaps he's got the inside track on that as well.

In any case, Huckabee's back on the political scene and it's a mistake to count him out. Who else in the Republican Party can appeal to their macho side like Chris Christie while also filling the Christian right's love tank like Rick Santorum? And doing it all with the nasty politics of Ted Cruz and the smug smile of Ronald Reagan? He has real political talent.

The bad news (aside from the prospect of him somehow winning) is that we will likely be treated to a reprise of him playing "Cat scratch fever" on his guitar alongside his good friend Ted Nugent.

Yes, that happened:

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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