Mike Huckabee is a conservative. In fact, he’s the most genuinely appealing conservative — the best communicator, the warmest personality — in the upper echelons of the Republican Party.
It is easy to see why those who have not followed the decay of the conservative wing of the Grand Old Party wanted Huckabee to take up the banner of Barry Goldwater-John Ashbrook-Ronald Reagan conservatism and carry it into a new presidential race.
But Huckabee well recognizes that the idealism of old has given way to a crude win-at-any-cost calculation that makes little attempt to promote conservative ideals — focusing instead on fear, smear and attack to keep the party viable.
That’s an ugly calculus. And Huckabee has never embraced it. Indeed, in 2008, he frequently counseled fellow Republicans that it would be a "fatal mistake" to try and stir up opposition to Barack Obama based on his race. "When people are really hurting – and they are right now – they’re not looking at a person’s race," Huckabee explained.
And he was right.
The former governor — who I have interviewed numerous times over the years and who I have always regarded as a rare maverick on a generally predictable political scene — was the most genuinely Reagan-esque of the potential contenders for the party’s nomination to challenge President Obama.
Unfortunately for Huckabee, his party and his country, today’s GOP no longer approves of or even makes much attempt to emulate the conservatism that Goldwater, Reagan and their kind brought into the American political mainstream.
This was a problem for Huckabee. While he polled well with grassroots Republicans, who approved of his homey, upbeat, outside-the-beltway and slightly off-message approach, he was never a favorite of the money men or the DC-based strategists who run the show via faked up groups such as Americans for Prosperity and Crossroads GPS.
Why? To a far greater extent than most contemporary Republicans, the former governor of Arkansas has remained a true believer in the values (and the stylistic approach) of the optimistic “new right” of the 1960s and 1970s – a right that marched into the middle of the Grand Old Party, shoved aside the liberal “Rockefeller Republicans” and the Middle-American pragmatists and cleared the way for Reagan’s nomination and election to the presidency in 1980.
But, because Huckabee is a true son of the oddly upbeat movement that was characterized as “the new right,” he recognized that his way to the 2012 GOP nomination was anything but clear.
There is no question that Huckabee is a hero of the religious right; he’s a favorite on the Christian school fund-raising circuit where he raises millions for private education.
Those connections would have seen him throughthe Iowa caucuses and some key primaries in mid-south states where evangelicals are the base of the GOP. But he would have faced a brutal battering on the campaign trail. Why? Despite the best efforts of liberal pundits to portray the Arkansan as some sort of drooling “Huckabeast," he has always been, like Goldwater and Reagan before him, a believer in forging a popular — even populist — conservative vision that appealed to a majority of Americans.
As such, Huckabee regularly refused to go along with the more ideologically-extreme and flat-out crooked proposals that the American Legislative Exchange Council and other corporate-front groups have tried to impose on the states. Even Democrats who disagreed with him acknowledged that, as governor, Huckabee showed a degree of genuine concern for low-income kids, rural schools and communities of color. ABC News has noted that Huckabee’s"record as pro-government governor" would not sit well with the party establishment, and there is some truth to the observation.
When he ran for the Republican nomination in 2008, Huckabee actually reached out to working people and their unions – expressing a measure of opposition to free-trade deals and tax breaks for multinational corporations that outsource jobs. That won him a Republican-primary endorsement from the Machinists union and some friendly words from labor leaders.
Huckabee also questioned whether the United States had gotten into too many wars without considering exit strategies. No, he was not a Ron Paul-style anti-warrior. But Huckabee sounded like a lot of Main Street Republicans (and Democrats) who ask whether the neoconservatives really have all the answers.
That slim but real independent streak earned Huckabee some of the hardest hits of his political career in 2008. Corporate-funded attack groups and his fellow Republican contenders attacked him with everything they had in their arsenals. They made it clear that Huckabee was not crazy enough, not extreme enough, not mean enough to lead a party that was (and is) running on a toxic blend of smear and vitriol.
Huckabee knew that he would be hit even harder this year, as more extreme and unforgiving ideological purists – and their corporate benefactors – have hijacked the party of optimistic conservatism. This GOP would not nominate a Goldwater or Reagan – both of whom had records of supporting abortion rights and gay rights, and neither of whom was willing to demonize all Democrats in the way that, say, a Sarah Palin or a Michele Bachmann does.
Huckabee’s not really a hater.
And he knows his party is looking for mean this year.