Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, jumped into the presidential race yesterday with an appearance on Meet the Press and a speech at the National Review Institute’s Conservative Summit. He plans to file papers today forming a presidential exploratory committee and then head off to Iowa to begin campaigning.
Huckabee starts in a hole that he seems ill equipped to dig out of. His strategy thus far seems to be to deflect serious questions with folksy charm (not to mention malapropism; Huckabee seems to think that “emulate” means “venerate”). A former pastor, Huckabee peppers his speech with ministerial alliteration that can border on the absurd, as when he calls for a “flatter, fairer, finite, family-friendly” tax system. His endorsement of a flat income tax seems calibrated to deflect criticism of his record as governor, which has earned him low marks from the Cato Institute and the Club for Growth. It’s a cost-free gambit, given that a flat tax is unlikely to pass any Congress in the immediate future. Both on Meet the Press and in a press conference following his NRI speech, Huckabee declined to promise, as Mitt Romney and Sam Brownback have, to never raise taxes.
Nor does he show much evidence of deep foreign policy thought. When I asked him when, if ever, he’d contemplate military action against Iran, he didn’t mention anything about the Iranians’ progress toward going nuclear, instead taking the opportunity to emphasize diplomacy and coalition-building in the Middle East. Another reporter asked who he’d be taking foreign policy advice from; he didn’t have any names at hand.
IMAGINE, FOR A MOMENT, the deeply improbable series of events that would lead to a Mike Huckabee presidency. Let’s say Rudy Giuliani decides his heart isn’t in it. Then John McCain commits some epic gaffe that turns his name into electoral poison. Mitt Romney is destroyed by a devastating attack ad cut by the Sam Brownback campaign. But the ad strikes many observers as anti-Mormon, and the debate over whether or not Brownback is a bigot throws his campaign off-message during a critical stage of the primary race. Into the breach steps the Arkansan, who wins the nomination. That still doesn’t get him over the finish line, though. The Democrats still have to somehow manage to nominate a candidate that he can beat.
What possesses someone like Huckabee to take a shot at the presidency against such long odds? It can’t be something unique to him, as there’s no shortage of longshots with exploratory committees or campaigns: There’s Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo, Ron Paul, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, Dennis Kucinich, Tom Vilsack, and several others.
For some, the goal is obviously to burnish a reputation as leader of a particular faction, and maybe push other candidates to pay more attention to that faction. That’s clearly what Tancredo, Paul, and Kucinich are up to. For others, campaigning may be an end unto itself. Running for president is hard work, but it’s less hard if you aren’t running to win. If you don’t mind being underfunded, you can hold fewer fundraisers, and if you’re never in anyone’s way you can avoid the most vicious attacks. What’s left is the rooms full of well-wishers, the spotlights, and the sycophantic staff of people who fervently believe that you are the best man for the most powerful job in the world. If you have the right mix of narcissism and obliviousness to both find all that appealing and not notice the people like me who are watching you and snickering, I highly recommend starting your own exploratory committee.