Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I Like Mike

This is the first of two stories about Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Read the second post, debunking the myth that Huckabee attacks Mormons, here. On a sidenote, this is the 200th post at Wayward Episcopalian – wooo, part-ay!

There’s no doubt about it, I am a Democrat. I’m pushing hard for Joe Biden, and backed Howard Dean in 2004. Robert Kennedy is my hero, and I’ve volunteered for countless Democratic candidates in at least five different states.

But I have a confession to make: I heart Huckabee.

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor and Arkansas Governor, has enjoyed a meteoric rise in support lately. Since coming in a surprise second in the August Ames Straw Poll, he has shot from single digits to first place in the early-voting states of Iowa and South Carolina, and holds a strong second place nationally. This success has stumped many pundits, but the only thing that stumps me about it is why it took so long to happen. All summer long, we heard stories about Republican voters’ dissatisfaction with their field of candidates, and about how maybe Fred Thompson could be their savoir. Those were the stories that stumped me. Huckabee has performed incredibly well in every Republican debate since they started in May, and his politics are a natural fit for the Religious Right. I was wondering when he would take off.

There’s no way I’ll ever vote Huckabee myself. He’s wrong on Iraq, wrong on the “fair” tax, and wrong on gay rights. But there’s more to a politician than those three issues, and I believe Huckabee is a genuine, sincere person worthy of respect. I would like to encourage my Republican friends to vote either for him or for John McCain. If you’re a Republican, you might say, “Why should I vote for the guy the Democrat *likes*? Shouldn’t I run in the opposite direction?” If I were praising Huckabee because I agreed with him on the issues, you’d have a point. But while his politics do play a small role in it, I like him largely because of his compassion and pragmatism.

Politically, I like Huckabee’s economic approach. The business wing of the Republican Party loathes him, and while I’m not exactly an opponent of business – entrepreneurship is good – that does start him off on the right foot with me. He endorses a national sales tax, which I believe is a terrible idea, but other than that, he did some solid things in Arkansas. He likes to brag about his 94 tax cuts, but the fact is he also raised taxes 21 times, leaving a net increase. I’m no fan of tax increases, but “fiscal responsibility” is more than just slashing taxes – it also entails balancing the budget, even if that means the price of cigarettes has to take a hit. Newsweek says, “At times he can sound like John Edwards, promising health care for low-income children and vowing to defend wage earners against Wall Street greed and runaway CEO pay. Alone among the GOP candidates, he speaks emotionally about the legacy of Jim Crow and the dangers of ignoring lingering racism. It is wrong, he says, that inner-city blacks routinely receive harsher sentences than affluent whites arrested for the same crime.” (As a pastor, he integrated his church even though it meant losing some members.) Furthermore, in his book “From Hope to Higher Ground,” he wrote that Reaganomics “makes a false and callous assumption that the poorest people in our nation—with inadequate salaries, lack of nutritious food, substandard housing and nonexistent or underfunded health care—can somehow afford to patiently wait while someone else’s wealth eventually splashes onto them.” It doesn’t get more Christian than that, and Huckabee backed an increased education budget, states-sponsored health care for poor children, gas taxes to fix crumbling roads, and more. His current immigration plan, while emphasizing security, does include a guest-worker program and path to citizenship. As Governor, he fought “stricter state-level immigration measures. Huckabee opposed a Republican lawmaker's efforts in 2005 to require proof of legal status when applying for state services that aren't federally mandated and proof of citizenship when registering to vote….That same year, Huckabee failed in his effort to make children of illegal immigrants eligible for state-funded scholarships and in-state tuition to Arkansas colleges.” In reference to that education plan he has said, “In all due respect, we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did. We’re a better country than that.” He also admits climate change is real – a rarity among Republican solons.

On foreign policy, I disagree with his pro-Iraq views, but I do admire the essay he wrote last week for Foreign Affairs about Bush’s foreign policy, in which he wrote,

“The United States, as the world's only superpower, is less vulnerable to military defeat. But it is more vulnerable to the animosity of other countries. Much like a top high school student, if it is modest about its abilities and achievements, if it is generous in helping others, it is loved. But if it attempts to dominate others, it is despised. American foreign policy needs to change its tone and attitude, open up, and reach out. The Bush administration's arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad.”

One can hardly accuse Huckabee of pandering. Though this is the kind of foreign policy that will play well in a General Election, Huckabee isn’t quite there yet – he’s still competing in a Republican primary where George W. Bush continues to enjoy a 71% approval rating. So not only is Huckabee not in the pocket of big business, he’s also managed to alienate the neocons – my kind of guy!

But there’s more to a politician than issues, which is the real reason I admire Mike Huckabee. He doesn’t strike me as an ideologue. I told this to one liberal friend at Dartmouth, who was shocked to hear it and rattled off Huckabee’s right-wing social positions. Fair enough, but I don’t label politicians as “ideologues” based on where they stand. That word has to do more with how they stand where they stand, with how they approach the issues. Are they willing to work with and listen to folks who disagree? Do they take their blinders off and listen to facts rather than just their gut? Stephen Colbert once said of George W. Bush, “You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man's beliefs never will.” THAT’S how you define an ideologue. Huckabee is certainly too far right-wing on social issues for me, but I do believe he is a pragmatic guy who Democrats could work with.

I say this for a variety of reasons. One is his willingness to tick off fellow Republicans as Governor of Arkansas. Two is the approach he took as a pastor. His sermons were never full of fire and brimstone, and he often got things done by building consensus among his congregations. In 1989, he was talked into running for president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, and, though a conservative, won as the choice of the moderates. He became known as a reconciler who worked to bring people together and settle feuds, particularly over the issue of Biblical interpretation. If his personal history is any indication of what a man believes, then it is clear that Huckabee respects ideological differences.

In fact, moving away from the electoral side of things for just a moment, if I were a Baptist, I would be proud to have Mike Huckabee as my pastor. I disagree with him on any number of theological issues – homosexuality, the role of women – but since he shows respect for disagreement, his pastoral style would matter to me more than his specific beliefs. I first started to like Huckabee when I read this Politico story:

I asked him if he is still a Baptist minister — many profiles of him say he “was” a Baptist minister — and he replied, “I am one.” Then he added with a smile: “They haven’t defrocked me.”

And has being a minister made him a better candidate?

“I think it is the greatest preparation to run for office or to serve,” he said with real emotion. “There is not a social pathology that I can’t put a name and a face on: A 14-year-old girl who’s pregnant and hasn’t told her parents, I’ve talked to her.

“A young couple head over heels in debt, struggling to keep their marriage together, fighting all the time, I have talked to them.

“An elderly couple where one has Alzheimer’s and the other is struggling over whether to put the spouse in longterm care and it’s just eating them up. I am the guy who sat down and talked to them and worked with them.

“A family deciding to pull the plug on an 18-year-old kid in a motorcycle accident and donate his organs. I am the guy who was there at 2 o’clock in the morning in the ICU to talk to them.”

He leaned forward a little.

“In the very best people I have ever met, there is a secret side that nobody else knows, a dark side that make us all very fragile and human and real,” he said. “And in some of the worst people I have ever encountered I have also found that you can’t completely write them off as unredeemable.”

Hearing that poignant last paragraph from a high-level elected official is quite stirring. I was also thrilled to see him say the following in a Republican debate, when asked if he believes every word of the Bible:

Returning to the electoral side of things, Huckabee often says, “"I'm a conservative, but I'm not mad at anybody about it,” once adding, “I've learned that you don't have to give up your own convictions. But you do need to be willing to have an open mind, spirit and heart toward people who are completely different from you." Many liberals roll their eyes and say, “Bush called himself a compassionate conservative – don’t fall for THAT again!” But I say, one man claiming to be something he’s not hardly suggests that that something plain doesn’t exist. A side-by-side comparison of the two men shows that Huckabee is no Bush. Bush entered the presidency with no real political experience – just six years as Governor of a state where the Governor is little more than a figurehead. He had no record to stand on, so we had to take him at his word. Huckabee, on the other hand, has ten years as a real executive, and the education and health care initiatives mentioned above were very real. Furthermore, it has often been said that Bush didn’t know who he was as a person until he turned forty. As a pastor, Huckabee had to know who he was long before that. Politically, Senator Joe Biden and Pulitzer Prize winner Charlie Savage have both written that when Bush entered office, his political convictions were still in their infancy, and his advisers competed not just for his ear but for his heart. The Cheney camp ultimately beat the Powell camp, both on foreign policy and Constitutional. At heart, Bush really is a compassionate person – the liberal columnist Nicholas Kristof has said Bush frequently asks aides about Darfur – but his politics were pushed elsewhere. That won’t happen with Huckabee. This is a man who, as an effective Governor rather than a figurehead, has already established his political foundations. Throw in the foreign policy letter mentioned above and it becomes quite obvious that Huckabee is no Bush. We can believe his conservative-but-not-angry line without fearing a return of the compassionate conservative.

Huckabee’s time in office certainly had its critics, but I think most of the attacks are a little silly. The largest charge is probably the list of ethics complaints filed against him. Normally I take ethics violations very seriously, but the specific charges against Huckabee seem petty and largely inconsequential. Most of them revolve around potentially improper gifts from friends or funds that were legal but looked wrong. The casual way in which Huckabee dismisses these complaints bothers me – he was wrong, and he should admit it – but by and large, they are minor issues. Another frequent criticism is his handling of Wayne DuMond’s parole. DuMond was an Arkansas felon jailed for rape. It appears that Huckabee lobbied for DuMond’s parole, but once released, DuMond raped and murdered another woman. Though this sounds like a serious incident, I believe that sometimes what really is the right decision on purely philosophical grounds turns out to have unforeseeable and devastating consequences. Huckabee critics say the DuMond case is reminiscent of the 1988 Willie Horton and they’re right—which is precisely why it doesn’t bother me. That scandal was blown completely out of proportion and colored with racism. Michael Dukakis got a raw deal, and we’ll be better off as a nation if we can avoid treating another man the same way. I’m also dismissive of a 1992 AP questionnaire in which Huckabee wrote that AIDS patients should be quarantined. Although the facts behind AIDS had been established by 1992, myths were still commonplace. I think any citizen can be forgiven for demonstrating a lack of knowledge about the disease at that time. It would be far more troubling if Huckabee were to say that current AIDS patients should be isolated.

There is, however, one attack on Huckabee that does bother me. I have described him as a pragmatic statesman, and the national press has certainly bought into the sunny-demeanor narrative. Politicians who worked with him in Little Rock, however, aren’t so quick to praise him. Many say he is a thin-skinned, arrogant bully. Newsweek reports, “Jim Hendren, the state’s Senate minority whip, says he gave up trying to debate issues with Huckabee. ‘It was like you became the enemy,’ he says. ‘There wasn’t ever a negotiation. It was, ‘It’s going to be my way or else.’’” It doesn’t bother me that Huckabee might have a thin skin – that’s his problem, not ours – but I do think we’ve had enough of the “my way or the highway” approach. These critics are the people who know Huckabee best, and their words should be given serious weight. However, his letter condemning Bush’s arrogance and his style as a pastor do suggest these concerns may be overblown.

Moving away from Huckabee’s time as Governor, it is often asked, can a pastor be president? I certainly think, and as a political activist and potential pastor myself, hope so. Democrat and Methodist minister Ted Strickland was just elected Governor of Ohio, and is frequently mentioned as a potential running mate for Hillary Clinton. Across the aisle, Republican Episcopal priest John Danforth did a great job as U.S. Senator and U.N. Ambassador. These men are able to separate their religious obligations from their political responsibilities, and given the way he answers questions about women in ministry or evolution vs. creation, I think Huckabee, with an exception for gay rights, is able to do that. What ultimately matters isn’t that a candidate has acted on their spiritual beliefs in a professional way, but merely that they hold those views in the first place. Obama’s United Church of Christ convictions and Biden’s Catholic faith are no doubt just as important to them as Huckabee’s Baptist faith is to him – why would he be any more disqualified for office than they?

In a similar vein, there are those who suggest that Huckabee has carried his Christian views too far as a politician. For example, prominent liberal blogger Scout Finch of Daily Kos has implied that because Huckabee specifically mentions Christ in his latest television ad, he clearly doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state. I think that’s horse hockey – Huckabee is just being himself. His religious belief defines him at his core in a way no atheist could ever understand. To hide that would be disingenuous, and merely being devotedly Christian and letting voters know it doesn’t mean he wants to blur the lines of church and state. Case in point, Pastor Governor Strickland.

Finally, Huckabee has been accused of frequently insulting Mormons on the campaign trail. This charge is complete BS. Not once have I seen an actual instance of Huckabee trashing Mormons or their church. This is lousy reporting from an irresponsible and uninformed press, and I will address this in great detail with my next post.

Will Huckabee’s success last? That I don’t know. Coming out so brazenly against the neocons when 71% of Republicans still support Bush sure isn’t going to help him. Neither will his lack of foreign policy experience – when asked for his views on the new National Intelligence Estimate about Iran, he said he’d never heard of it. But with that report reducing the threat from Iran, the emergency situation in Pakistan ending, and fewer Americans dying in Iraq, maybe foreign policy won’t be quite the issue we thought it would be . If that’s the case, I don’t see how Huckabee’s numbers among conservative Christians in Iowa and South Carolina can fall, and if he wins those two states with a strong showing in Florida, he’ll have incredible momentum for Feb. 5, when half the nation votes. Given Huckabee’s compassionate pragmatism, McCain’s slim chances, Romney’s opportunism, and Giuliani’s arrogance, a Huckabee victory would be welcome. While it’s Joe Biden I hope to ultimately see in the White House, I urge my Republican friends to vote for Huckabee, if not McCain.

Photo Credits: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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