Twice in Republican presidential primary debates, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has been asked about the death penalty. Twice he’s called it an unfortunate necessity, drawing on his own experience with state-sanctioned killing. It was Huckabee’s awful responsibility as executive of a Southern state to see that it was carried out for over ten years.
In last week’s go-round, Huckabee said that letting an execution go forward was “the toughest decision I ever made as a human being.” He assured the audience he’d “read every page of every document of every case that ever came before me.” He’d read them not because the cases had been gripping reading but “because it was the one decision that came to my desk that…was irrevocable.” It was a choice he’d unfortunately had to make “more [times] than any other [Arkansas] governor…”
Michael Brendan Dougherty, scribe for the American Conservative, best captured the cynical Beltway dismissal of Huckabee’s words: “He’d kill them but he’d cry about it.” For many on the right, the rap against Huckabee is that his is an Oprahfied conservatism or even a Clintonized one. They say, compassionate conservatism was bad enough; now he’s going to borrow a trick that other former Arkansas governor and feel our pain, too. (Recall that during his primary battles, Bill Clinton returned to Little Rock to oversee the execution of the functionally retarded cop killer, Ricky Ray Rector.)
The more obvious comparison, however, would be of Huckabee to primary candidate George W. Bush. Both men were successful Southern governors who bucked the odds to win election. Both came to power when their states had started clearing out Death Row and didn’t fight the trend. Both were “normal” guys, big spenders, conservative Christians, wonky education reformers, foreign policy newcomers, fitness nuts, outdoorsmen, moralists, and teetotalers.
That Bush-Huckabee comparisons aren’t more forthcoming is a testament to Huckabee’s style and political skill. By this observer’s count, his latest death penalty answer managed to dodge three separate “sounds like Bush” bullets that came whizzing toward him. It was like watching a special effects-heavy scene out of The Matrix.
1. Bush’s most famous death penalty pronouncement was in the case of axe murderer Karla Faye Tucker. She had found Jesus in jail and expressed deep remorse. Many Christians petitioned the Texas governor to commute her sentence to life in prison; he refused. Reflecting on it afterward in an interview with Talk magazine, Bush did an impression of Tucker. “Please don’t kill me,” he mocked.
Americans are pro-death penalty but they tend to believe some respect should be granted to those people the state condemns to die. Recognizing this, Bush’s team denied the veracity of the report. Huckabee managed to play up his own lethal injection credentials without having to deny it later.
2. Bush infuriated irreligious and nominally religious Americans during an early primary debate by naming Jesus the philosopher who had most influenced his life. Ever since, critics have used the statement to dismiss the president as a not-so-closeted theocrat rather than as someone who is rather indifferent to philosophy.
Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, understands this trap and has so far managed to avoid it. The question that was put to him was actually, “What would Jesus do about capital punishment?” Huckabee answered using entirely secular language and reasoning. When CNN host Anderson Cooper tried to get him to address the original question, Huckabee replied, “Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office, Anderson. That’s what Jesus would do.”
3. Pro-lifers like Bush for his actions — he signed the federal partial birth abortion ban and vetoed bills that would fund embryo-destructive stem cell research, after all — but often cringe at his inarticulate way of talking about their issue.
Not so Huckabee. He wowed the pro-life Christian conservative voters at this year’s Family Research Council straw poll and he did it again in the debate. He moved effortlessly from the death penalty to abortion. Some people ask “how can you be pro-life and believe in a death penalty?” he said.
His answer was that there’s a “real difference” between the two scenarios. In the first, “a person is deemed guilty after a thorough judicial process and is put to death by all of us as citizens under a law.” In the second, an individual makes a tragic “decision to terminate a life that has never been deemed guilty, because the life never was given a chance to even exist.”
The real danger for the Huckabee campaign is that reporters and pundits will begin comparing him to the previous Southern governor who captured the Republican nomination. With a little luck, and with answers like that one, they never will.
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