(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.