Former Governor, Arkansas
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Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, announced his campaign for the White House in May 2016. In 2008 Huckabee ran a strong campaign for the Republican nomination for president, winning several state caucuses and primaries and finishing as the runner-up to John McCain.
While he has consistently and strongly supported socially conservative policies, many of his views on economic and other domestic policy issues are likely to raise serious concerns with Republican voters who hold pro-free market views. He has clashed frequently with free-market oriented conservatives, calling the pro-tax cut group Club for Growth the “Club for Greed.” His record as a governor included a mixture of tax hikes and tax cuts, but the libertarian Cato Institute gave his tenure as governor a grade of D. His foreign policy and national security views generally fit within the conservative mainstream. The main appeal of a Huckabee candidacy in 2016 is likely to be among social conservatives. Huckabee has warned that he and like-minded Republicans may leave the party if it abandons or mutes its positions on social issues, a message he delivered after deeming the GOP’s response to a Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage to be insufficiently conservative.
Despite winning the 2008 Iowa caucuses and running a strong second overall to eventual nominee John McCain, Huckabee does not seem to have held on to a strong base of support. Most polling nationally and in the early states show him in low single digits; his fundraising has been poor at best; and while he qualified for the first few “prime time” debates his low levels of support relegated him to the early “undercard” debates starting in November.
Although other candidates appear to have poached much of Huckabee’s past support from social conservatives, he’s enormously telegenic and a gifted speaker, and he defied many experts’ predictions in winning the Iowa caucuses despite modest fundraising in 2008. It would take a series of unlikely stumbles by those candidates in front of him as well as better-than-expected finishes in some of the early contests for him to rise to the level of serious contender, but of all the third-tier candidates Huckabee may be the one with the best chance of improving his situation.
Mike Huckabee was born in Hope, Ark., in 1955, the son of Mae and Dorsey Huckabee. His father was a fireman and a mechanic; his mother was a clerk at a gas company.1
Huckabee started early in public speaking, beginning at age 14 when he got a job reading news and weather at a local radio station. He was a leader at an early age, being elected governor by the Boys State program in 1972 and participating in the Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership Foundation.2
Huckabee attended Ouachita Baptist University after high school and received his degree in religion in only two and a half years, graduating magna cum laude. He then spent one year at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, dropping out to take a job with a Christian broadcaster.3
He became a pastor in 1980, first at the Immanuel Baptist Church in Pine Bluff, Ark., and then at Beech Street Baptist Church in Texarkana, Texas. He was also elected president of the Arkansas State Baptist Convention in 1989.4
His first experience as a candidate for public office was running as the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Dale Bumpers. Huckabee lost, but the election of Bill Clinton as president meant then-Lt. Governor Jim Guy Tucker became governor, and the lieutenant governor’s office was vacant. Huckabee ran in the special election and was elected lieutenant governor in July 1993.5
In 1996 Tucker was indicted and convicted of corruption charges. His removal from office made Huckabee the governor. Huckabee was re-elected in 1998 and 2002 but did not seek re-election in 2006.
Huckabee’s underfunded presidential campaign for the 2008 Republican nomination was considered a long shot, but he surprised many by winning the Iowa caucuses and six later contests. He received a boost when Mitt Romney dropped out, making him the primary conservative challenger to John McCain.6
Since the end of the 2008 race, Huckabee has hosted a program on Fox News and otherwise maintained a busy public schedule.7 He and his wife, Janet, have been married since 1974, and the couple has 3 children.
There is little doubt that Huckabee is guided by strong principles and morals. His background as a pastor for a dozen years suggests that he bases many of his views and actions on conservative religious views. His comments regarding leaving the Republican Party if it fails to stand strongly on social issues indicate that he values principles over political compromise or expediency, at least in the realm of the issues he finds important.8
Huckabee was one of the earliest endorsers of Marco Rubio’s 2010 campaign for U.S. Senate in Florida, at a time when most of the Republican establishment was supporting then-Gov. Charlie Crist.9 In other races, however, he endorsed candidates that were not generally the favorite of many conservatives and the tea party, such as David Dewhurst over Ted Cruz in Texas.10
There is some question regarding his consistency on the issues of immigration and climate change. After first proposing in a book he wrote that illegal immigrants should be allowed to pay a fine and have a pathway to citizenship, he modified his position during the 2008 nomination battle to advocate for deportation with a streamlined process to allow them to legally return to the U.S. He has explained his change by pointing out that he never defined what the original pathway might be, and deportation with the opportunity to legally return within a few days or weeks would be the pathway he would establish.11
More seriously, Huckabee appears to have flipped on climate change, or at least on whether he favors cap-and-trade. In October 2007 he spoke at the Global Warming and Energy Solutions Conference in New Hampshire and endorsed a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions.12 After receiving criticism over his stance he seemed to back away slightly in a letter to The Wall Street Journal, and by 2009 he appears to have completely abandoned his position and claims he only supported a voluntary program for businesses. His letter to the Journal references the cap-and-trade program for sulfur dioxide, however, which was a mandatory program.13
Recently, Huckabee also backtracked on his previous support for raising the retirement age for Social Security and Medicare, as well as allowing some sort of vouchers or premium support in Medicare.14
There is little indication that Huckabee’s agenda as governor differed from his stated campaign goals, suggesting he largely kept faith with the voters and delivered what he campaigned on, or at least did not surprise voters by doing things out of line with what he had given them to expect.
Huckabee was criticized for campaign finance practices during his campaigns for U.S. Senate, lieutenant governor and governor, including paying himself from campaign funds as a media consultant and receiving speaking fees through a nonprofit he controlled. As governor he was sanctioned five times for various violations of Arkansas ethics rules, and he accepted tens of thousands of dollars in gifts from various people and groups, including many who had business with the state.15
One definition of leadership is whether people will follow someone, and there is little doubt that Huckabee has established himself as a leader of the social conservative element within the Republican Party. His passion and commitment in this area is first-rate and inspires many to follow him.16 He served as chairman of both the Southern Governors Association and the National Governors Association, suggesting his peers respected his leadership skills as well.17
He was also named one of America’s five best governors in 2005 by Time magazine, again suggesting broad respect for his leadership and governing skills.18
Huckabee is a gifted and eloquent speaker. His background as a pastor serves him well in communicating with audiences, as does his extensive background in broadcast media. His debate performances in 2008 were generally considered to be very good, and he has little trouble articulating his views.19
His excellent communication skills haven’t kept him from stumbling into controversy, however. In February 2015 he made a joke about wishing that in high school he could have told teachers he was transgender so he could shower with the girls,20 and in July 2015 he said the agreement with Iran over its nuclear program would march Israelis “to the door of the oven.”21 While neither comment is likely to do lasting harm to his candidacy and may even bolster his support with some segments of the GOP, they are the sort of comments that can easily consume a candidate’s limited media attention and take them off-message, ultimately damaging his efforts to broaden his appeal.
As the governor of Arkansas at a time when Democrats controlled the legislature, Huckabee had little opportunity to enact what might be called bold conservative ideas. He did get statewide academic standards passed, likely to please conservatives concerned about low academic achievement,22 while his creation of ARKids First, essentially a Medicaid program for children of low-income families, will likely disappoint many conservatives concerned about expansion of the welfare state.23
Nationally, Huckabee’s endorsement of the Fair Tax, which would replace the current federal income tax with a national sales tax, is probably the best example of his support for innovative policies, and it is likely to gain him support from many limited-government advocates who favor the idea.24 He has also supported allowing Social Security beneficiaries to receive a one-time buyout or annuity, another innovative and free-market-oriented policy.25
One oft-voiced criticism of Huckabee is that he is “thin-skinned.” Arkansas-based media who covered his administration say he can be petty and vindictive, and he got into a public dispute with Glenn Beck after Beck described him as “progressive” because Huckabee had voiced support for First Lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity efforts.26
His battles with the Club for Growth and free-market advocates, both of which represent a significant community within the Republican Party, seem gratuitous and unnecessary and suggest he may have limited appeal outside of socially conservative circles; it may be difficult for him to build coalitions within the broader conservative movement.27 His limited fundraising in 2008 also indicated a real inability to connect with the major donors who are needed to support a national campaign.
Huckabee has a proven ability to bring together the socially conservative coalition typically needed to win the Republican nomination and motivate conservatives in a general election, but it’s unclear whether he can bring limited-government advocates behind him as well.28
Huckabee’s political skills are considerable, as he was elected and re-elected three times in a state that was at the time a bastion of the Democratic Party, and he was able to turn a seriously underfunded campaign in 2008 into a strong challenge to ultimate nominee McCain. His overall affable personality, broadcast skills, debate ability, and strong support from the social conservative community make him a serious contender in 2016.29
In the area of taxes, Huckabee had a mixed record in Arkansas, supporting significant tax cuts during his early years in office, including cuts in capital gains taxes and reforms to the income tax, while his later years included several tax increase proposals such as a hike in the state sales tax and an income-tax surcharge.30
More recently Huckabee has endorsed the Fair Tax, which would replace the current income tax system with a national sales tax of approximately 23 percent. There is a serious division among the conservative community over whether a national sales tax is good policy, but it seems fair to consider Huckabee’s support for it to be consistent with many conservative principles.31 Huckabee signed the Americans for Tax Reform pledge not to raise taxes in 2007, prior to running for president.32
Budget & Spending
On spending Huckabee’s record is not at all conservative. According to the Cato Institute, state spending soared by 65 percent during his tenure in office.33 He has called for increased spending on infrastructure at the federal level, and he criticized Bush’s veto of an expansion to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.34 Although he vowed as a candidate in 2008 that he would cut federal spending and support a balanced budget, there is relatively little in his record as governor to suggest a serious commitment in these positions.
Huckabee supported the budget sequester in 2013 and criticized Democrats for “fear mongering” over the cuts,35 although he expressed concern it might hit defense spending too hard.36 He has spoken frequently about the debt problem, going so far as to compare inaction on the debt to inaction regarding the Holocaust.37
In the regulatory arena, Huckabee signed a minimum wage increase as governor and endorsed a government ban on smoking in public places and in workplaces.38
In 2007 Huckabee endorsed net neutrality, a policy that would bring 1930s-era regulations intended for phone service to the Internet, and which critics say will give government greater control of online content and interfere with Internet providers’ ability to manage and price their services. Huckabee was responding to a heavily slanted question, however, and he may have been unfamiliar with the issue.39
Energy & Environment
Huckabee has supported raising federal fuel economy standards to 35 miles per gallon and at one time embraced (and subsequently backed off of) a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.40
Huckabee has recently suggested humans have little impact on climate change,41 and he supports construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.42 He supports more drilling for oil and natural gas on federal lands and lifting the ban on exporting crude oil43 as well as encouraging the export of natural gas.44 He also has expressed support for renewable energy, including subsidies for ethanol and biodiesel.45
On health care reform Huckabee aligns well with free-market principles. He was a staunch opponent of Obamacare,46 and in his 2008 campaign argued for free-market solutions, including expanded Health Savings Accounts and equalized tax treatment of insurance bought in the individual market.47 He spoke out against “universal health care” and supported the use of tax credits targeted at the poor in order to expand coverage. He supports giving states block grants for Medicaid.48
Huckabee supported the Medicare Part D program, which provides prescription drug benefits to seniors but also creates a huge unfunded liability.49
Huckabee has always claimed to support free trade, although he has typically qualified his comments to suggest that free trade agreements must involve “fair trade,” and he frequently voiced concerns that other nations weren’t following rules and abiding by U.S. standards.50 In his book Do the Right Thing he argues, “But the truth is that globalization is just one of the many reasons why individuals lose their jobs and why companies close their doors. Globalization also creates jobs, and often the benefits of globalization for outweigh the costs.” He supported both NAFTA and CAFTA. But more recently his comments on trade have been distinctly negative, emphasizing the issues of possible reduced wages and job losses for U.S. workers. He has stated his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.51
Entitlements & Welfare
Huckabee has reversed himself on entitlements and now opposes most reforms to Social Security and Medicare, harshly criticizing proposals to raise the eligibility age or impose a means test for wealthy recipients.52 He has also said he would oppose Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s premium support plans for Medicare that would give seniors the money to obtain private coverage in the open market,53 arguing that doing so, like changing Social Security, would be disastrous politically and further diminish the public’s trust in government. He has said he would support reforms that would only affect workers just entering the labor force54 and that he would support allowing the newly retired to take their Social Security benefits as a single lump sum rather than over the course of their retirement.55 While he has not said specifically what he would do to put the programs on solid financial footing, he has said “so many cheats are exploiting the Social Security program, and more than 20 percent of Medicare spending is waste, fraud and abuse. … Washington needs to tackle these problems first.”56
In an August 2015 op-ed, he suggested that his tax reform proposal would “create a stable funding stream for Social Security and Medicare” but provided no specifics.57
On immigration, Huckabee’s approach seems grounded in his Christian faith but also aligns well with free-market ideals, although his position is sure to raise the hackles of many conservatives. He has modified his position over time, but essentially favors a secure border while allowing those presently in the U.S. to remain, or at least leave the country for a short period and then return as part of an expanded legal immigration system.58
In his book Do the Right Thing Huckabee said agriculture subsidies should continue because European and Asian farmers receive subsidies, and because subsidies keep retail prices for food low in the U.S. He has argued for a “fully funded” crop insurance program and urged special incentives for new farmers including tax-deferred savings accounts and deferred loans.59
Banking & Finance
Huckabee was critical of the 2008 bank bailouts60 and also of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau included in the Dodd-Frank law meant to regulate Wall Street.61 He has criticized “big Wall Street banks whose reckless and feckless mismanagement” he believes caused the financial and economic crisis of 2008, while pointing out that Dodd-Frank has hit small community banks hard.62 In 2008 Huckabee said Sarbanes-Oxley, which imposes stringent standards and heavy burdens on the accounting practices of U.S. companies, should be repealed.63
Huckabee has routinely voiced support for subsidies for favored industries, particularly in agriculture. He argued in his book Do the Right Thing that agriculture subsidies should continue because European and Asian farmers receive subsidies, and because subsidies keep retail prices for food low in the U.S. He has argued for a “fully funded” crop insurance program and urged special incentives for new farmers including tax-deferred savings accounts and deferred loans.64
He has also supported subsidies for renewable energy, including ethanol. He signed onto a resolution from the Southern Governors Association supporting “adequate funding and incentives for further development of clean and efficient” energy technologies.65
Huckabee’s public statements in the 2008 campaign, and those since then, suggest an interventionist approach that favors American military and diplomatic power as a decisive player on the world stage.
Huckabee supported lifting the embargo on Cuba as governor of Arkansas, writing Bush to urge him to end the embargo. He later reversed his position when he ran for president, explaining he was representing the interests of rice farmers in his state when he had earlier supported ending the embargo.66 He referred to Obama’s decision to renew relations with Cuba and loosen the embargo as a “slap in the face of Cuban-Americans.”67
Huckabee has stood firmly for American national sovereignty, opposing the Law of the Sea Treaty and explaining that U.N. or other international agreements should have no role in U.S. domestic policy.68
War on Terror
His statements indicate he would seek to more clearly explain to the public the threat from Islamic radicalism, and he supported Bush’s surge of troops in Iraq.69
Huckabee has called for the “eradication” of ISIS and has said he would take military action against Iran if necessary to prevent them from building nuclear weapons. He supports arming the Kurds in their fight against ISIS and backs increased American airstrikes against Islamic State as well.70 He opposes bringing in large numbers of refugees from Syria and the Middle East, noting that many of them are not fleeing persecution but instead seeking economic opportunity.71 He also asked whether those coming to the U.S. might be “some of the most violent and vicious people on Earth,” suggesting that Saudi Arabia should take them instead.72
On domestic surveillance, Huckabee has expressed his opposition to the government’s collection of bulk data on telephone calls (so-called metadata) that the National Security Agency uses to try to find and foil terror plots.73 He notes that to date, there are no examples of the program’s thwarting any attacks, and he says it violates constitutional rights.74
Huckabee has harshly opposed President Barack Obama administration’s agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, going so far as to say it was marching Israelis “to the door of the oven,” a pointed reference to the Holocaust.75
Military Preparedness & Budget
He has called for a larger, better-funded military, specifically calling for a return to the Reagan-era level of about 6 percent of GDP devoted to defense spending. This would include a larger Army and Marine Corps.76 He also states that the military should not be used for non-military missions such as building hospitals and schools, but that other government and private agencies should be used to fill that role.
Huckabee is a strong proponent of the idea of American exceptionalism. He once said, “To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation,”77 and in 2011 he launched a company focused on teaching children American history and promoting the importance of American exceptionalism.78
Huckabee has been highly critical of the role of the judiciary, stating he “will never bow down to the false gods of judicial supremacy. In a May 2015 interview Huckabee said, “[T]he notion that the Supreme Court comes up with the ruling and that automatically subjects the two other branches to following it defies everything there is about the three equal branches of government.”79 His views suggesting the executive and legislative branches could ignore a Supreme Court decision would represent a fairly radical departure from settled understanding, but is one that would likely please many conservatives concerned about judicial activism.
He has suggested term limits for Supreme Court judges80 and proposed impeaching justices in the wake of the Obergefell (same-sex marriage) decision.81
Huckabee called the Supreme Court’s decision in King v. Burwell (Obamacare tax credits) “an out-of-control act of judicial tyranny,” adding that the Constitution doesn’t give “Supreme Court justices the power to circumvent Congress and rewrite bad laws.” He accused the court of “[legislating] from the bench, [ignoring] the Constitution, and [passing] a multi-trillion dollar ‘fix’ to ObamaCare simply because Congress misread what the states would actually do.”82
He was similarly critical of the court’s opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, accusing the court of doing “something only the Supreme Being can do — redefine marriage.” He pledged that he “will not acquiesce to an imperial court” and insisted we “must resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat.”83
Huckabee opposes the Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, saying it created a “holocaust of liberalized abortion.”84 He believes it would “most certainly” be a good day if it is overturned.85
Huckabee supports the death penalty, although he has expressed regret and ambivalence toward it. He has also said that “three strikes” laws and “no parole” provisions are based more on “revenge” than sound criminal justice principles, while also noting that such policies were the result of the failed practice of “coddling criminals” from the 1970s. He has also stated, “We’ve got to quit locking up all the people that we’re mad at and lock up the people that we’re really afraid of, the people who are sexual predators and violent offenders.”86
Free Speech & Religious Liberty
On the First Amendment issue of campaign finance, Huckabee’s position has evolved. In 2002 he filled out a campaign survey indicating he favored limits on campaign contributions, but by the 2008 campaign he opposed McCain-Feingold and said that the best option might be to abolish limits and just have disclosure. Since then he has reiterated his view that limits should be abolished and all contributions should be disclosed.87 His views here largely mirror the conservative mainstream.88
Huckabee has referred to religious liberty as the “foundation of all our liberties”89 and made the issue a major theme of his campaign. He has pledged that as president he would sign an executive order protecting businesses, churches and other entities from government penalties for exercising their belief in traditional marriage,90 and supported Hobby Lobby in its fight against the Obama administration’s contraception mandate.91
He has said he supports a Kentucky county clerk who has defied a court order by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.92
It is Huckabee’s staunch opposition to government interference in religious matters that led him to oppose school vouchers, one of his few deviations from what most social conservatives support. He has expressed support for school choice in public schools, including charters, and is a sufficiently strong advocate of homeschooling that the Home School Legal Defense Association PAC endorsed his 2008 campaign. But Christian leaders in Arkansas convinced Huckabee that vouchers would invite government intrusion into private Christian schools, leading him to oppose vouchers.93
Huckabee has been a staunch advocate of pro-life views. He favors banning all abortions except for those needed to save the life of the mother,94 and he has supported efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.95 He favors overturning the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision and adding a pro-life amendment to the Constitution.96 He has also said he believes legal abortion is a violation of the Fifth and 14th Amendments of the Constitution.97
He has also made opposition to same-sex marriage a cornerstone of his presidential campaign, criticizing the June 2015 Supreme Court decision finding a constitutional right to same-sex marriage98 and calling for a constitutional amendment overturning the ruling.99
Huckabee is a longtime supporter of gun rights. Both he and his wife are concealed-carry permit holders.100 As governor he signed legislation protecting gun manufacturers from frivolous lawsuits,101 and he opposes a ban on assault weapons.102 He has spoken of the value of the Second Amendment not only to protect citizens against criminals but also as a bulwark against government “should it go completely awry and turn into tyranny.”103
Huckabee’s biggest single vulnerability may be the perception that he is simply a big-government conservative who will do little to promote a free-market economic system. While his commitment to social conservatism is beyond question and his views on foreign policy and national defense issues are well within the Republican mainstream, on economic issues he brings a populist as opposed to a free-market perspective.104 On occasion that will overlap with free-market views, but more often than not he likely would disappoint free-market advocates if he were in the White House.
Huckabee’s evolving position on immigration may be welcomed by conservatives, but his switch to oppose climate change regulations may breed suspicion that he flipped for political reasons. Similar concerns may be raised about his previous support for serious Social Security and Medicare reform long favored by many free-market advocates but since abandoned due to opposition to any real changes.
He also has a tendency to pick fights with members of the Republican coalition, particularly those with free-market principles like the Club for Growth. Huckabee’s “thin skin” is likely to get him in trouble on the campaign trail, needlessly alienating potential allies.105
Huckabee’s record on pardons would be problematic in a campaign. A number of people he pardoned went on to commit horrific crimes, including murder and rape. This became a focus of attention in the 2008 campaign as opponents attempted to paint him as “soft on crime,” and it may become an issue again.106
Finally, the issue of gifts received by Huckabee while in office and several admonishments by the state’s ethics officials are almost certain to be a staple of opposition ads in either a nomination or general election battle. Whatever the reality of the governor’s actions, he’s likely to be compared with the former governor of Virginia, Robert F. McDonnell, who was convicted of corruption.107
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