Mike Huckabee's Iowa problem: Why trading charm for spite could doom him

The potential 2016 candidate once won the all-important caucus state. But he's a different kind of candidate now

Published January 12, 2015 11:59AM (EST)

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

The Mike Huckabee that ran for president in 2008 was a happy warrior. He was folksy and personable, a warmer contrast to the fear and nativism endemic to his competitors' campaigns. The media liked him as a character and as a narrative: the smiling underdog with only a couple of staffers surging in the weeks ahead of the Iowa caucuses to steal the lead from Mitt Romney, the conviction-free fraud who'd dumped tens of millions of his money into the state to purchase its delegates. Iowans don't like nastiness, is one of those things presidential campaign reporters say, and Mitt Romney blew it by treating Huckabee so nastily.

The truth is a little more complicated. Huckabee's campaign would've been just as nasty in his attack ads against Mitt Romney if his campaign had been able to afford attack ads against Mitt Romney. And those "nice" Evangelical social conservatives who dominate the Iowa Republican base also tended to be kinda-sorta... Let's just say that, while trailing in campaign funds, the ordained Baptist pastor had a certain built-in advantage over the Mormon.

But there was a mean streak to him then -- a "thin-skinned" quality, as Arkansas political observers noted at the time. His career ever since that run has been a gradual unearthing of that trait to the point where it's overwhelmed whatever "charm" there ever was. Much like his fellow conservatives, that meanness has been encouraged by the presidency of President Barack Obama, about whom Huckabee has had much to say from his various lucrative media platforms.

It's not just about Obama. Huckabee's nastiness, twinned with that other latent-but-not-anymore quirk of his, weird vulgarity, is on full display in his new book, Guns, God, Grits and Gravy. (God, depending on how humble He's being at any given time, would only approve of one of those things.) Early excerpts suggest that Guns, God, Grits and Gravy will be a masterpiece of The Insane, or at least a "non-traditional" pre-presidential campaign book.

The chapter about TSA screenings at airports is titled "Bend Over and Take it Like a Prisoner!" For those of you who aren't "street-smart" like Mike Huckabee, that's a joke about how getting screened by TSA agents is akin to prisoners being raped in a penitentiary. Nothing says wholesome and folksy like anal rape. Ha ha indeed, flying is... moderately tedious. The little old ladies in Council Bluffs are going to eat that one right up, with a side of grits.

Aside from Huckabee's usual weird musings about gay people -- something that most other Republicans have at least dialed back a touch since 2008, while he has not -- there is also this pervy riff about Jay-Z and Beyonce. "Huckabee," U.S. News' Dave Catanese writes, "compared the duo's 2013 Grammy Award performance to watching 'foreplay.'"

"My reaction: Why? Beyonce is incredibly talented – gifted, in fact. She has an exceptional set of pipes and can actually sing. She is a terrific dancer – without the explicit moves best left for the privacy of her bedroom. Jay-Z is a very shrewd businessman, but I wonder: Does it occur to him that he is arguably crossing the line from husband to pimp by exploiting his wife as a sex object?"

(The funniest part is how he tries to cover his ass with "arguably." He's not saying one way or the other! That the rapper is pimping out his wife!)

I'd figured for a while that if Huckabee ran again, the Iowa caucuses would be his to lose. He'd still have a reservoir of support from his 2008 win, and next time, he'd at least have some money to throw towards advertisements and organizing. But has his lucrative media career drawn him too far down the high-paying but low-ceilinged path of lunacy and bitterness? Sure, the Republican "base" has matched his drift further into shrieking-clown territory since they last met, and Iowa Republicans will dabble with jokers (see Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain). But in the end they tend to go with someone warm and upbeat. Huckabee has lost -- ceded, really -- that quality that made him such a star there in the first place.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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