It was one of the last days in the Wisconsin primary, and a cold, wind-whipped blizzard had brought the 2008 campaign to a standstill. A hundred or so Mike Huckabee fans gathered nonetheless at the Olympic Lanes on Milwaukee’s south side unsure whether the candidate would make it.
After his initial surprise victory in Iowa, Huckabee had run the gauntlet of primaries to become the last man standing in the way of John McCain becoming the Republican nominee. But his personal bank account was empty. To make ends meet, he’d flown off that weekend to speak for money at a Young Republicans convention in the Caymen Islands. Now, while other candidates huddled in their hotel rooms waiting for the storm to pass (and Barack Obama flew off to secretly woo John Edwards in North Carolina) Huckabee and his wife Janet sat in the back of an SUV crawling along at 20 mph from the airport to the bowling alley.
When he walked in the door, there was a smattering of applause. No campaign theme music announced his arrival. No flag bunting adorned the walls. He made no speeches. He thanked the Lord for the good people who braved the weather to greet him then ordered up some shoes. And for the next hour or so, he did something quite remarkable on the campaign trail: he enjoyed himself.
It would be Huckabee’s last hurrah. He invited members of the press corps who had been with him from the beginning to bowl a frame, even coaxing the small camera from the hands of a CBS embed to record her turn. Between frames, he hugged his wife and wolfed down pepperoni pizza. When they finished, he lingered to sign every bowling ball and campaign poster thrust in front of him. “History may soon record that Huckabee’s run for the presidency ended in a bowling alley in Milwaukee,” I wrote at the time, “but that is also where the Christian Coalition found a new leader: a fun one.”
Two weeks later, Huckabee announced the end of his campaign. He acquitted himself well for the rest of the campaign (giving the funniest speech at the Republican convention) and has spent the last four years hosting a variety show on Fox that has gone a long way toward replenishing his coffers. So I was not surprised when polls made him the early front runner in the 2012 race – nor was I surprised when he announced this week he wasn’t going to run.
“My Heart Says No”
“All the factors say go, but my heart says no,” he told his television audience.
With a new home in Florida, a daily radio commentary on 600 stations and a sustaining gig on Fox TV that puts him on track to replace Glenn Beck, Huckabee is living large these days – and, as always, enjoying it.
Many factors did say go: Early polls showed him leading the field not only in Iowa and South Carolina but also problematic northern states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He faced a weak line-up of nutcases on the party’s right and uninspiring opposition in the mainstream; and, unlike 2008, he appeared to have access to enough money to go the distance.
Having run the gauntlet once, however, Huckabee knew the road to the presidency is a slippery slope for an avowed evangelical Christian, especially when it widens out in November to encompass the entire electorate. And there are no prizes for second place.
“I don’t expect everyone to understand this, but I’m a believer and a follower of Jesus Christ, and that relationship is far more important to me than any political office,” Huckabee announced. “For me, the discussion and the decision is ultimately not a political one, not a financial one, not even a practical one, it’s a spiritual one.”
Mike, We’ll Miss You
What I’ll miss with Huckabee out of the race is the civil tone he set on the campaign trail. Social conservatives don’t have to worry that their voice won’t be heard. There will be plenty of candidates on the stump bashing abortions, decrying creeping socialism and arguing for a return to good old fashioned family values (although some may be hampered by their own personal stories.)
When Huckabee espoused any or all of these, his voice was clear as a bell. But there was something magnanimous about how he phrased it. Across the great gulf that divides the Pro Choice and Pro Life forces, for instance, he built a bridge that said his personal choice was life, but others were free to find their own path.
Huckabee wore his religion on his sleeve, but he always made clear his was a personal relationship with God. That made more than a few potential supporters uncomfortable, and his announcement only reinforced that uncertainty. “Being president is a job that takes one to the limit of his or her human capacity,” he said. “To me, to do it without the confidence I was taking it with God’s full blessing is unthinkable.” But there was something just plain decent about how Huckabee discussed his faith, whether you agreed with him or not.
Huckabee was never much of a political strategist. He has gone a long way in politics just being a nice guy. So maybe it was wise not let himself become “chum for the shark tank,” as Roger Simon wrote in Politico. Bowing out as he did, with “not only clarity but an inexplicable inner peace,” Huckabee no longer has to worry about all the negativity that infects our political system.
Instead, he can be remembered for adding a new maxim to the political lexicon: nice guys don’t run for president.
Addendum: In one of those ironic moments where the exception proves the rule, Donald Trump announced two days later he too will not be running for president. That doesn’t make him a nice guy, but it might mean he has found his brain.