Can Mike Huckabee Reinvent Conservative Talk Radio?
(AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
If you came in late to The Mike Huckabee Show on a recent afternoon, you might have wondered if you tuned in to the wrong station. A voice (not Huckabee’s, to be sure) was laying out the case for legal abortion. Huckabee, a Baptist minister, former governor of Arkansas and runner-up in the 2008 Republican presidential primary, has repeatedly compared abortion to slavery. The voice belonged to Huckabee’s guest Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president. Conservative talk radio is not known for welcoming dissenting opinions, even from within the conservative tent, much less outside of it. So what did Huckabee say in response?
“I respect that view,” Huckabee responded gently. He went on to say, of course, that he is “vigorously pro-life.” But when’s the last time you heard a conservative talk radio host say that he respects the pro-choice position?
Mike Huckabee is an unusual creature in American politics: a civilized social conservative. Whether as a Republican politician, Fox News host or talk radio commentator, Huckabee’s cohort has usually been composed of bellowing agitators who denigrate liberals as anti-American. Huckabee, by contrast, presents the kinder, softer voice of staunch conservatism. You do not agree with him, but at least you can have a conversation about it.
In 2007, Huckabee made his name in the Republican primaries with the now famous line, “I’m a conservative, but I’m not mad at anyone about it.” At the time, The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes noted that there was a similarity between Barack Obama’s appeals to national unity and Huckabee’s. “They might be called the ‘take it easy’ candidates,” Barnes wrote. Not coincidentally, Huckabee and Obama both rode strong performances among young voters to upset victories in the Iowa caucuses. In recognition of Huckabee’s lasting political appeal, the Republican National Committee announced on Monday that he would be one of the main speakers at the convention in Tampa later this month.
Had Huckabee entered the 2012 race, the contrast with his primary opponents would have been even starker than in 2008. The other right-wing populists in this cycle all presented as divisive and angry: Newt Gingrich’s pompous ridicule, Rick Santorum’s seething outrage, Michele Bachmann’s creepy extremism. Huckabee has the calming, genial manner of a mainstream conservative such as David Brooks or David Frum—without the policy moderation.
Case in point: After Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy declared that his family—which founded and owns the company—opposes gay marriage, Huckabee called for Wednesday August 1 to be “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.” Newspapers reported lines of cars backing up for blocks all over the country, and even some sympathetic owners of rival fast-food franchises encouraged their customers to go to Chick-fil-A that day. Other social conservative leaders such as Bachmann and Santorum jumped on the bandwagon, but the maneuver was classic Huckabee: instead of snarling angrily at Chick-fil-A’s liberal critics, he used a positive frame—supporting a good Christian business—to appeal to the defensiveness and resentment of social conservatives who feel the tide turning towards nationwide acceptance of gay marriage.
On Fox News—home to Huckabee, which airs on Saturday and Sunday evenings, since September 2008—his tone makes him an outlier. The other major Fox News personalities—Bill O’Reilly, John Gibson, Sean Hannity—share a common DNA. In the style of right-wing talk radio, where many of them got their start, they are outraged reactionaries. But the mild-mannered Huckabee has found success on Fox, where his one-hour show beats the content on all rival cable news channels.
Now Huckabee has invaded the belly of the right’s angry white-man beast, talk radio itself. The problem for Huckabee is that conservatives have never been known to turn on the radio to hear respectful engagement with their ideological adversaries. In April Huckabee launched his show—produced by Cumulus Radio—with the tagline, “More Conversation, Less Confrontation.” He airs at the same exact time, noon to 3 pm EST, as Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh is the highest-rated talker in radio, carried on roughly 600 stations. (Some of the nearly 200 stations carrying Huckabee play him on tape delay instead of live, as is the case with a few of Limbaugh’s affiliates.) Can Huckabee’s approach succeed in the loony bin of conservative talk radio? Can he appeal to the more thoughtful angels of dittoheads’ nature? We don’t know yet, but the answer will tell us a lot about conservatism itself.
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Huckabee, the second most famous politician from Hope, Arkansas, is a natural radio talker. When he was 11 years old, he stumbled into his first broadcast. “Hope was such a small town that they broadcast all the Little League [baseball] games on the radio,” he told me wryly. Huckabee had broken his finger, so his manager sent him up to the broadcast booth to announce batters over the public address system. Luckily for little Mike, the broadcaster who normally did the play by play for the radio was out sick and the station manager, Haskell Jones, came to fill in for him.
“So I’m up there doing that and Haskell came out to the ballpark to cover for the guy who got sick,” Huckabee recalls. “He turned to me and said ‘Hey kid, would you like to call a couple of innings on the radio?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ So he put me in front of the microphone and I did a couple of innings and he said, ‘Kid, you’re not bad. When you’re 14 and can get your [Federal Communications Commission] license, come see me and I’ll give you a job.’ ” Huckabee did just that within days of his fourteenth birthday, and he paid his way through Ouachita Baptist University by working as a radio announcer, calling games and deejaying music.
Huckabee credits radio with helping him develop the skills that made him a successful preacher and politician. “I was a very bashful kid growing up, which is hard to believe, but I was,” Huckabee says. “Being on radio gave me a sense of timing and communication and confidence, that I didn’t have to see the audience but I could imagine them. And I’d always imagine that they liked what I said. So later when I started speaking in public I learned to transfer that sense of imagining that they like it.” Perhaps the assumption that every crowd likes him is part of what has made Huckabee able to reach out to constituencies, such as college kids and the media, that other conservatives mistrust.
But conservative talk radio is a different animal than calling ball games or even making speeches. It’s meaner. Historically, at least, conservatives have turned to talk radio to have their anger stoked, and it is not clear that they will embrace Huckabee’s approach.
In 1987 the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine, which mandated coverage of public issues and fair representation of opposing views. After that, a new breed of aggressive political commentators emerged, with overwhelmingly right-wing politics, led by Rush Limbaugh. Once an obscure local deejay, Limbaugh doesn’t engage respectfully with liberals; he smears them. Typical riffs include his song “Barack the Magic Negro” and his slandering Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student, as a “slut” for testifying before Congress about the benefits of access to birth control. This, to varying degrees, is the approach mimicked by other popular right-wing radio hosts such as Hannity, Neal Boortz, Michael Savage and Laura Ingraham. They are relentless partisans. They don’t have liberal guests, or if they do they bully and harangue them. And like Limbaugh, they seem motivated more by contempt for the left and its diverse constituency than by any positive vision of spreading freedom or strengthening families.
While the launch of Huckabee’s show brought a cascade of coverage touting his potential for commercial success in outlets such as Bloomberg Businessweek, conservative doubters are already gleefully claiming it has been a ratings failure. It’s true that there is no evidence yet that Huckabee has broken through in the biggest markets, which are used as national indicators. But Huckabee’s critics are getting ahead of themselves as much as his supporters may have. By launching in April, Huckabee started in the middle of the spring quarter, and ratings for the summer quarter have not been released yet. So no one has obtained the ratings for Huckabee’s show on all the stations where it airs and done the math. Talk radio hosts and producers say it is much too soon to pass judgment. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Mike Gallagher, a conservative whose eponymous show draws an estimated 4.75 million weekly listeners, making him tied for eleventh-most-popular radio host in the country. “I’ve been in syndication for twelve years. The stations where I do well, I’ve been on a long time. It takes a few years to build an audience and breakthrough.” “Radio is not like motion picture box office: it doesn’t get determined in the first weekend,” says Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine. “But I understand it’s not looking good; there’s no sign of instant smash.”
The success of Huckabee’s Fox show is no guarantee that he will be as popular on the radio. Television and talk radio are different mediums. The former is cool, in Marshall McLuhan’s famous formulation, and the latter is decidedly hot. “Radio, for the most part, all the way back to the great golden age, has to be the hip place, a dangerous place, where a guy like Howard Stern comes from,” says Harrison. “It has to be the place where a Rush Limbaugh could rise.” This is not unique to the right side of the political aisle. As Harrison notes, “Ed Schultz is not a gentle, quiet guy.” Schultz, who has been a political talk radio host for twenty years and actually started as a conservative Republican before moving leftward in the late 1990s, is not a bigoted demagogue like Limbaugh, so the comparison is not entirely fair. But Harrison’s point is well taken: Successful partisan political talk radio hosts are generally loud and somewhat manic. Huckabee is neither.
Huckabee is, in his own hokey way, hipper than Rush Limbaugh. He plays in a rock band, and he appeals more to young people than any mainstream Republican in recent memory. He is a natural kibbitzer, which plays well on TV. But he is decidedly not edgy. He is the temperamental opposite of shock jocks like Stern and Limbaugh, the Bill Cosby to their George Carlin.
Counterintuitively, television is also simply not as competitive a market as radio. Huckabee’s TV show airs on weekends, not the weekday evening prime time, so he is not competing against CNN’s big stars, like Anderson Cooper or Piers Morgan. And there is no second conservative political news channel, so Huckabee does not have to go head to head with, say, Bill O’Reilly, as he does with Limbaugh.
The Mike Huckabee Show is not Hucakbee’s first foray into political talk radio. Since January 2009 he has been producing The Huckabee Report, a thrice-daily three-minute riff of political news and commentary. It’s an oral blog post for the over-60 set, carried on nearly 600 stations across the country, from WABC in New York to nine different stations in Omaha, Nebraska. These segments might appear during or between programs. They are not rated, so it is hard to assess their popularity, although the fact that so many stations use them is an indicator of at least some success.
In a reassuring cadence, reminiscent of a Southern Garrison Keillor, The Huckabee Report blends conservative talking points with corny jokes about soft news. Consider the kicker to Huckabee’s July 12 midday commentary, in which he mentions that a newly discovered molecule could be inserted into toothpaste to prevent cavities and obviate the need for dental visits. “So we’ve got Obamacare driving doctors out of business, and this to drive dentists out of business,” said Huckabee. “Pretty soon all we’ll have left is podiatrists, and they better hope women never start wearing sensible shoes.”
Expert observers of talk radio caution that the short form bits provide virtually no clue as to whether The Mike Huckabee Show will succeed. Even hour-long TV shows cannot compare to the feat that is keeping an audience engaged for three hours every day, while handling unscripted callers live on the air. Maybe being calm and friendly just doesn’t work in that format.
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It has been generally forgotten since Huckabee’s presidential campaign, but he first attracted national attention for losing weight. In 2005, after shedding over 100 pounds, Huckabee published “Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork: A 12-Stop [sic] Program to End Bad Habits and Begin a Healthy Lifestyle.” Huckabee recommends focusing on holistic health, not weight loss alone.
Although noticeably heavier than he was in 2007, Huckabee, 56, has not gained all the weight back. It must be hard to find time to exercise with his schedule: five three hour radio shows, two hour-long TV shows and fifteen three-minute radio commentaries per week. Huckabee spends five days a week in Florida with his wife (his children are grown), and two in New York, where he tapes the Fox show. Huckabee starts his days at 4:30 am and he has a team of research assistants sending him news items over the next few hours. If Huckabee runs for the presidency again, it will be good training for the campaign’s notoriously brutal schedule. Huckabee readily admits he may run in the future, but he says, “I’m not planning my comeback. Frankly, I don’t have time.”
On a humid Friday evening in July, I met with Huckabee for an interview at the hotel where he stays regularly in New York, just down the street from the Fox studio. (His granting an interview to The Nation illustrates his willingness to engage. By contrast, popular conservative radio host Mark Levin responded to an e-mail query for this article by writing, “I despise the Nation. Don’t waste my time.”) I asked Huckabee, that scourge of homosexuality and secularism, how he feels about spending so much time in New York City. Even on such a mundane topic his response combined all the elements that make him such an appealing yet frustrating figure. Huckabee enjoys New York, he tells me, and he uses the subway, which he describes as “a remarkable way to get around New York.” And just like a real New Yorker, he complains about tourists blocking his path in Times Square. “I feel sometimes I wanna say”—here Huckabee adopts a Noo Yawk accent—“I’m walkin’ here.”
Conservatives often seem to support government spending when it goes to a cause they identify with—research into a loved one’s disease, for example—and so I asked hopefully whether Huckabee’s fondness for the subway has made him, unlike most Republicans in Congress, see the virtues of increasing federal investments in expanding mass transit. It hasn’t. “Mass transit makes sense in urban areas with enough people to support it,” says Huckabee. “But I also think two things: it has to be in an area with enough passengers so that it will actually be efficient, and the second point, right now the government doesn’t have any money. Until the government starts cutting all its ridiculous spending and getting control of its budget, I don’t think it’s a realistic proposal.” To Nation readers, refusing to increase funding for mass transit may sound conservative, but merely acknowledging that some government support for mass transit is appropriate in dense urban areas is an apostasy to the most hard-core fiscal conservatives. But it’s disappointing to see that his fondness for mass transit has not changed his view of a policy issue such as federal transportation investment.
This is often where Huckabee falls on economic issues (notwithstanding his bizarre proposal to replace our tax code with a highly regressive consumption tax). He is right of center, but not in league with the libertarian cranks who want to abolish federal funding for roads and bridges.
In a formulation beloved by self-styled reasonable or independent-minded pundits, Huckabee told me, “I don’t think Republicans are right all the time, I don’t think Democrats are wrong all the time.” But when I asked for an example of an issue where he agrees with Democrats rather than Republicans, he couldn’t name one. After a pause, he offered: “Although I believe in school choice, and I think that empowering parents to make the decisions are important, I think there’s an important role for public education. I’m not an anti–public education person.” Rhetorically, this is an anodyne statement from any major American political figure, other than, say, Ron Paul or Grover Norquist. How many mainstream American politicians won’t gladly say they think there should be public schools? This puts Huckabee at odds with a few Milton Friedman–worshipping Tea Party activists, but well within the Republican mainstream.
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As befits someone who made his name promoting healthy living, Huckabee often strays from politics to feel-good diversions that soften his intolerant social conservatism. In an approach more reminiscent of The 700 Club than most political programming, Huckabee’s regular segment “Huck’s Heroes” highlights the apolitical good deeds of regular citizens, such as Blair Noles of Gastonia, North Carolina, who used the $10,000 he won in the lottery to host a New Year’s Day brunch for 150 needy people.
Huckabee also offers fair-minded interviews with non-conservative guests. He recently hosted a segment on young voters featuring Reshma Saujani, a young woman who challenged Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) in a 2010 Congressional primary, as his sole guest. Saujani answered questions from a diverse and liberal-leaning young audience, and Huckabee only interjected to contradict her when she said that voter identification laws are an unnecessary burden on voting rights. (Huckabee invoked the specter of “dead people voting,” as Republicans are wont to do.)
But Huckabee also lets right-wing guests make extreme, or even offensive, statements without contradicting them. On July 7, Representative Allen West (R-FL) appeared on Huckabee’s Fox show to defend his comment earlier that week that President Obama “does not want you to have the self-esteem of getting up and earning and having that title of American. He would rather you be his slave.”
Rather than confronting West, Huckabee offered him a chance to lash out at his critics. “What you said, in the context of what you said, was totally understandable,” said Huckabee. “But you’ve taken an enormous amount of heat…. Why did the media get so crazy about it?” West explained that “the liberal media” is guilty of “duplicitous hypocrisy.”
“We are creating economic dependency and I call it slavery,” said West. “It’s a different form of slavery. It’s not physical, but it can be even worse because it trounces the indomitable entrepreneurial spirit of the United States of America.” Huckabee offered no challenge, no follow-up, nor even a suggestion that throwing around the term slavery every time the number of food stamp recipients goes up might be excessive or racially insensitive.
When I asked Huckabee about the interview with West, he stood by his comments, and his admiration for the outlandish congressman, who has claimed that there are eighty-one communists in Congress. (West was referring to the House Progressive Caucus. He was not joking.) “What Allen West said was really not that provocative,” Huckabee told me. “When he said that people become slaves to the government: I think that’s an appropriate metaphor.”
The West interview is only one example: Huckabee outsources partisanship by having nominally expert guests make the desired right-wing talking points. For example, in his recent chat Fox News with Tony Evans, the conservative African-American pastor of a Dallas mega-church, Huckabee asked if President Obama’s recent announcement that he supports same sex marriage would be a problem for him in the African-American community. Sure enough, Evans said yes: “That’s a major issue,” said Evans. “There’s a great disappointment…. It is critical that we try to encourage the president to reverse his position on this, because the African-American church holds strongly to a biblical definition of family.” The question of whether African-Americans will vote against Obama because of gay marriage is an empirical question. Polling data shows increasing acceptance of marriage equality in the black community and no movement away from Obama among black voters. But that went unmentioned. Huckabee also asserted, without citing any evidence, that, “the issue of traditional marriage is more important in the Latino community and the African-American community than it is in the white community.”
Huckabee has brought similar tactics to his radio program. On June 11, he hosted Joel Richardson, an Islamophobic author who frequently appears on Glenn Beck’s program and website. Huckabee opened by noting that he himself has Muslim friends who aren’t radicals, but then sat by as Richardson declared Islam “an inherently evil and soul-destroying and freedom-destroying force.” Huckabee’s follow up question? “Is there something that in particular Americans ought to know about the Islamic religion?”
Huckabee has also abetted the spread of birtherism. On May 18, a caller identified only as “Chris in New Orleans” declared on Huckabee’s radio show that President Obama must be responsible for an obscure promotional material for his memoir in which his publisher said he was born in Kenya. “The point is a valid one,” concurred Huckabee. “Did he provide that because he wanted to present himself as an internationally themed author?… He ought to tell us.”
Liberal press critics caution that Huckabee’s amiability should not be confused with moderation or journalistic integrity. A civil discourse, they argue, requires more than refraining from wantonly defaming your ideological opponents. “There are two separate problems with our discourse,” says Ari Rabin-Havt, executive vice-president of Media Matters. “One is coarseness; two is people adopting misinformation and lies. Mike Huckabee adopts the same misinformation and lies as everyone else on the right, and that’s the bigger problem. This is a guy who cites molestation as a justification for the Boy Scouts ban on gays.” Guests like Richardson also reflect Huckabee’s tendency to at least humor, if not endorse, tendentious or outright false attacks on conservative whipping posts from President Obama to the entire Islamic religion.
Occasionally Huckabee himself makes divisive remarks. On his Fox show the weekend after the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, Huckabee blamed the separation of church and state for the atrocity. “We don’t have a crime problem or a gun problem—or even a violence problem,” said Huckabee. “What we have is a sin problem. And since we ordered God out of our schools and communities, the military and public conversations, you know, we really shouldn’t act so surprised when all hell breaks loose.”
Ironically, some right-wingers make the same mistake as the mainstream journalists they revile by confusing Huckabee’s demeanor with his policy stances. “Huckabee tanking against Limbaugh. Why? People don’t want kinder, gentler - want stronger, tougher,” tweeted Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for the American Family Association and host of a radio show on its network. Fischer linked to an article in The American Spectator that gleefully celebrated Huckabee’s supposed humbling at Limbaugh’s hands. The author, Jeffrey Lord, derided Huckabee as a moderate and his show “RINO [Republican In Name Only] Radio.”
Huckabee is not a moderate. When he was governor, Arkansas banned same sex marriage and so-called partial birth abortions, required parental consent for minors having abortions and imposed a waiting period on women seeking an abortion.
To conservatives who label Huckabee a moderate or a Republican In Name Only, the whole notion of replacing conversation with confrontation is incomprehensible. In this mindset, if moderates like Mike Huckabee, then Huckabee must be a moderate. The inverse also holds true then: any conservative who admits that Barack Obama is not an enemy of the American state but merely a good person with a different set of policy preferences is not a true conservative. Being angry and confrontational becomes as much the litmus test of true conservatism as refusing to raise taxes.
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For movement conservatives, media isn’t journalism: it’s partisan warfare. “What conservative listeners are looking for is something with an edge, something muscular and strong and forceful,” Fischer told me. “Most conservatives believe we’re involved in a knife fight, not a pillow fight. They want somebody to sharpen the blade.”
I asked Huckabee about the critique offered by Fischer, and he responded with a bit of jiu-jitsu. Extreme demonization of your opponent, Huckabee suggested, actually demonstrates weakness, not strength. “There may be an audience that just loves to see their opponents driven into the dust,” he admitted. “I think, though, that that reflects a level of anxiety about one’s own view. I have a view that the positions I hold and the beliefs that I hold and the convictions that are dear to me are defensible. They’re defensible intellectually; they’re defensible socially. So I don’t have to engage in a level of name-calling to see if I can be louder, or I can be somehow [more] caustic than the other side.”
This sounds appealing, but it is actually a little too clever. There is no evidence that fire-breathing conservative talkers harbor any doubts about their moral and intellectual superiority to liberals. It is more likely that they express such vituperation because they genuinely despise their ideological opponents. And presumably, so does their audience. If the show’s prospects for success rest on Huckabee’s premise, it is a shaky one.
The person who may find the right sweet spot between Limbaugh’s belligerence and Huckabee’s amiability is another former Republican presidential candidate with a kooky tax plan: Herman Cain. Cain is a relentlessly partisan figure who very stridently criticizes Democrats and liberals. But he does it with a smile rather than rage. Starting next year, Cain will be taking over for Neal Boortz, a syndicated conservative talk radio host who is tied with Gallagher in Mediaite’s rankings. While Cain is arguably more conservative than Boortz, who has some libertarian leanings on social issues, Cain is decidedly less unpleasant. Boortz has a tendency, like Limbaugh, to issue racially inflammatory statements in his dyspeptic growl. Cain is the kind of conservative who can go on The Colbert Report and play along with the joke.
As for Huckabee, he told me the time to take stock of his show’s success will be next summer. “In the first year,” said Huckabee, “success is that the affiliates themselves are happy with the content. It takes time to develop a radio show. It’s not something where something comes out and bang it’s a huge success.” His Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day—which he promoted aggressively on the radio—suggests he may be able to tap into anger without being angry.
On the road to having a productive bipartisan dialogue, having a conservative who is willing to respectfully converse with liberals is a necessary, albeit insufficient, condition. It would not be a substitute for policy moderation, but it’s a start.