As he began making the early “exploratory” rounds, a smiling Mike Huckabee recently reminded Martha Raddatz on ABC’s political Sunday show This Week that in 2008 he had run a “very green” presidential campaign that got “more miles per gallon” from its limited financial resources. Having given a couple hundred dollars months before the Iowa caucuses and several hundred more afterwards, I was one of those not-so-deep pockets then putting fuel in Huckabee’s tank. One reason why was his rhetoric on conservation that included support for climate legislation. For a tree-hugging southern-born social conservative like me, Huckabee ‘08 was about as good as it could get, especially in a scary cycle that featured Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney as early favorites.
So, I worked the campaign booth at a Virginia gun show, and later braved an icy mile long walk to cast my vote in the primary. And then, though the delegate math looked bad, I still toted my homemade “Crunchy Cons for Huck” sign to neighboring Maryland for a rally. Long after he finished in second place to John McCain, I even chipped in enough to HuckPAC to qualify for a personally autographed guitar.
It is, therefore, with something of a heavy heart (and a thinner wallet) that I now watch as Huckabee 2.0 emerges. Unfortunately, on matters green, the man whose debut book was entitled Character Is the Issue is displaying little of it. First, though, a reminder of the good ole days.
Huckabee’s 2008 campaign book, From Hope to Higher Ground: 12 STOPs to Restoring America’s Greatness, included something rather rare for a twenty-first century Republican — a whole chapter on taking care of the earth. While Huckabee still wanted to put some space between himself and the term “environmentalist,” he identified as “unapologetically a conservationist” and, in the tradition of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, made a good case for that label:
I remind people that the very word “conservative” means that we are about conserving those things that are valuable and dear. Few things are more valuable to us than the natural resources that God created and gave to us to responsibly and carefully manage so as to pass them on to the next generation in as good, if not better, shape than we found them.
Beyond just its mere presence, the most shocking thing about “STOP Abusing Our Planet” was the chapter’s conciliatory tone. The central vignette begins with parks and wildlife department bureaucrats sheepishly asking that the new governor not openly oppose a coming ballot initiative. He surprises them by offering vigorous support for the measure instead. Governor Huckabee then traversed the Arkansas River from border to border in his bass boat, leading to the voters’ overwhelming approval of a previously defeated state constitutional amendment. It raised the Natural State’s sales tax by 1/8 of a cent in order to permanently fund conservation efforts. Today, park facilities have been upgraded, thousands of additional acres preserved for wildlife, and you can visit two nature centers paid for with those funds that are named for the Governor and First Lady Janet respectively.
A bridge-building rather than bomb-throwing Huckabee goes on to say, “Al Gore wasn’t entirely wrong when he spoke of earth ‘in the balance.’ Balance is exactly what we need more of in an honest discussion about the environment.” And in a rarity for such pieces of political puffery, the avid duck hunter even showed contrition for his past use of “overheated rhetoric” when calling some animal activists “environmental wackos.” An apologetic Huckabee writes, “I realized that my choice of terms had done less to encourage meaningful dialogue and more to simply stir up the passions of those who already agreed with me.” He even devoted another chapter to exploring that underlying sentiment further: “STOP the Heat and Turn On the Light for Hot Issues.”
While his book was thin on policy specifics, Huckabee was willing to touch one of the culture’s hottest issues when out on the stump. In an October 2007 speech in New Hampshire, Huckabee made his belief in global warming and the need for action crystal clear, drawing spontaneous applause in the process. “Climate change,” the Governor stated firmly, “is here and it’s real.” The site for the speech was something called the “The Global Warming and Energy Solutions” conference, and Huckabee was clearly there to establish his environmental credentials. But he seemed to want to go beyond merely checking the “light green” box when he closed with a discussion of leadership:
Unfortunately, a lot of political leadership in this country is much like a thermometer. Polls will be taken, the temperature will be guessed and gauged, and then the speeches will reflect. What we do not need in this country is thermometer leadership. What we need is thermostat leadership.
A thermostat reads the temperature as to what it is, but the primary purpose of a thermostat is to seek to adjust it to what it ought to be. And I would suggest, that regardless of your politics, that you insist that people commit to being more than thermometers, that they commit to being thermostats — to help adjust not just the climate of the earth, but the direction of this country. Not accepting what it is, but leading to what it ought to be.
If that analogy sounds familiar, it should. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote of the differences between thermometers and thermostats in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” For a bit, it looked like another Baptist minister might lead the GOP to the promised land of environmental leadership. (Of course, given past Republican Presidents like conservation giant Teddy Roosevelt and even Richard Nixon, who initiated and signed monumental laws in the 1970s, perhaps the better analogy would be Nehemiah returning from exile and rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.) But 2008 proved to be the peak of the persona I have come to call high road Huckabee.
As he himself would often say, this Huckabee was “a conservative, just not mad about it.” Huckabee seemed to genuinely like most people, and he liked being liked. His pledge to not run a negative campaign, however, was tested by a threatened Mitt Romney who seemed intent on buying an Iowa victory no matter the cost. In response, we were introduced to too cute by half Huckabee.
Huck’s political pros told him to hit back at Mitt hard. An ad highlighting Romneycare’s $50 abortion was prepared and TV time bought. At the last minute — while jogging and praying, as he would later describe it — Huckabee had a pang of conscience. He arrived at a previously called roll-out press conference, but instead of just saying he had decided to preemptively pull the ad, Huckabee insisted on showing it just once to the assembled media — who erupted into a cynical laughter at the suggestion. To many it seemed Huckabee wanted to have his pious cake and publicly throw it in Romney’s face too.
The squeaky clean luster was dulled, but there was undoubtedly a level of sincerity to the reversal, and he was certainly more authentic than the chameleon Romney. Huckabee won Iowa and happy Huck largely returned for the remainder of the campaign. He never went negative on McCain, but instead treated the eventual nominee with honor and respect.
McCain passed him over for the vice-presidential slot, though, and with Sarah Palin came a “drill, baby, drill” mantra that only seemed to snowball. The left-leaning environmental community spurned the longtime leader behind the McCain-Lieberman climate legislation, and instead embraced newbie Obama’s siren song promise to stop the rise of the seas. With no McCain playing the role of climate sheriff in the White House, Republicans began to pull back from the issue.
Still, it seemed that high road Huck had landed on his feet. He had a weekly show at Fox News where he was regularly having civil conversations with political friend and foe alike. Huckabee even made genuinely nice trans-partisan gestures, such as scoring inauguration tickets for a class of African-American youngsters eager to see history made in person. Yet, Huckabee was saying little about climate on the air. And, as I can personally attest, he passed on at least one opportunity to highlight a telegenic Christian climate scientist.
Some elements of the Tea Party movement, originally focused on bank bailouts and our national debt, were splintering off into witch-hunt brigades, and anyone linked to “cap and tax” seemed headed for a trial by drowning. As the temperature in the teapot rose, Huckabee’s resolve to be a thermostat wilted. He opposed the rather imperfect cap and trade bill that barely passed the House and then died in the Senate. There was plenty to object to in that effort, including the massive give away of valuable credits to existing polluters, but Huckabee now seemed set against the concept of a climate bill entirely.
When someone had the gall to point out the flip-flop, Huckabee doubled down on indignation: “I never did support and never would support it — period.” All those embarrassing tapes and quotes were just him talking about “voluntary” cap and trade — an illogical concept because without a mandatory cap, there is not much reason to trade.
It was a flagrant distortion of language and history from a man who was then pitching a book called Do the Right Thing. The politician who had started off the new millennium writing in Living Beyond Your Lifetime: How to Be Intentional about the Legacy You Leave that “for a candidate to express a belief only because it reflects public sentiment is not what a republican form of government is about,” was now, a decade later, all about scratching the itchy ears of the moment. 2012 was just around the corner, and being the GOP version of Al Gore was not setting up as a winning formula.
As it turned out, the former Arkansas governor, who by then lived along the Redneck Riviera of Florida, simply parlayed the “will he or won’t he” moment into big ratings for his weekly Huckabee show — strapping on the bass to play “Cat Scratch Fever” with Ted Nugent before declining to run. The champion of social conservatism thus ended that particular political flirtation with a rather odd ode to sexual promiscuity.
This time around, however, Huckabee seems intent on going all the way. He’s quit the lucrative Fox gig and is touring to promote himself and a new book called God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy. The man who once gave the South tough love in Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork now writes at length about the virtues of fried foods and waxes nostalgic for the square of Jell-O on his old school lunch tray.
Similar to the 2008 political primer, though, there is a green chapter. Unfortunately, this time it’s called “Environmentalist Hypocrisy.”
It is a topic Huckabee should know well. The same man who, while standing in front of a “Clean Air/Cool Planet” backdrop, told the 2007 New Hampshire crowd, “It’s all our fault and it’s all our responsibility to fix it,” was by 2013 hosting the hoax-caller-in-chief Jim Inhofe on his radio show. There, they traded tropes and half-truths about the supposed past consensus on global cooling and the wonders of CO2 as plant food.
The chapter’s sole purpose is yelling “Hypocrite!” — a tactic designed to shift the focus to the flawed messengers and thereby avoid dealing with the substance of the message. The high road Huckabee of old lamented, “Name-calling is often a substitute for meaningful and thoughtful adult-level conversation.” The harsh Huckabee of 2015 is apparently just fine with making that trade.
In the book, Huckabee takes aim at high flyers like John Travolta, Al Gore, Greenpeace, and President Obama. Plus, he saves some shells for vegans, wind towers, compact fluorescent light bulbs, Leonardo DiCaprio, and the Germans. The former pastor who regretted his own “overheated rhetoric” as he approached 2008, today is turning up the gas with a tedious leave-no-insult-behind approach. Consider this representative sentence:
For those of us from the land of God, guns, grits, and gravy, being told we need to ride a bicycle and live in a tree stump by an environmental lobbyist in a Gucci suit or an aging hippie who hasn’t been outside the San Francisco city limits since Jerry Garcia died goes over about as well as Pee-wee Herman lecturing George Foreman on how to throw a punch.
Huckabee keeps his fists flying like this page after page. The one time slim-and-trim marathoner who is now back to heavyweight status serves up a heaping helping of resentment-based politics designed to rally the residents of Bubba-ville (his term, not mine) to the polls. The conservative who once wasn’t mad at anybody, is now mad as heck (Huck’s still not a fan of profanity) and he’s not going to take it anymore. Sensing this is his last shot, the aging Arkansan seems to have watched the tapes from Mitt Romney’s 2012 say whatever you have to say run to the nomination and grown green with envy.
To be clear, I do not view Huckabee as just a big phony. While wavering on the care of God’s creation, he is to be commended for steadfastly standing by the unborn and the institution of marriage when others are slinking into the shadows. And I still see glimmers of the old high road taker in things such as his own hedging and waffling when defending the output of his acid pen face to face. Further, I share Huckabee’s general frustration with a coarsening culture and elites that marginalize the people and values of flyover country. I too “miss the front porch culture,” but there are better ways to advocate for its return besides screaming (to quote another chapter title) “GET OFF MY LAWN!”
Governor Huckabee, I offer you this free advice as a longtime supporter and one who grew up close enough to Hope, Arkansas to know that its claim to fame (beyond politicians) is watermelons. Take a couple weeks off. Read your old books again. Then read some books by that less televised defender of rural America, Wendell Berry. Better yet, take a trek to Mr. Berry’s front porch and shoot the breeze a while. On the way back, swing by and see some mountains that are being blown apart and meet the Appalachian people who have to breathe the dust and brave the floods. Then, put your significant oratory skills to use as you hike back up to the green higher ground you once occupied. As you noted years ago at that defining Iowa press conference where you reined in the negative, got back on the high road, and went on to victory: “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”
John Murdock grew up not far from Texarkana where the Pastor Huckabee ministered for several years. After a decade in the bubble of D.C., he now writes from a 2,500 person Bubba-ville in Texas and exists online at johnmurdock.org.