Editor’s Note: With his recent rise in the polls and improved fundraising, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has become the talk of the Republican presidential race. With that new prominence comes new criticism, and Huckabee has taken a lot of it in the past week, mostly for his record on taxes, but also for his handling of a notorious case in which he pardoned a convicted rapist who then went on to commit murder.
Huckabee is getting his defense together. But in August, just before his strong showing in the Ames, Iowa straw poll, he sat down with Byron York for an extended conversation in which he gave his side of the story on the big issues. The article appeared on the cover of the September 10 issue of National Review, available for free to non-subscribers for the first time today.
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Des Moines, Iowa — Mike Huckabee famously lost 110 pounds through a strict regime of diet and exercise, but on a visit to the Iowa State Fair he can’t get away without trying the local specialty known as pork chop on a stick. It’s not precisely what the name says — the stick is actually a protruding bone that makes a nice handle — but it’s a thick, meaty chop, and it makes a pretty heavy snack on an August afternoon with the temperature near 100 degrees. Still, politics is politics, and Huckabee, standing with his wife Janet in the shade of a tree near the Iowa Pork Producers stand, smiles as he poses for photographers and tells everyone how delicious it is. “We don’t believe in pork-barrel politics,” Huckabee says, “but we do believe in pork.”
It’s the day before the Iowa state Republican straw poll, and the former governor of Arkansas is running hard. If he does well, he’ll move a bit closer toward the first-tier contenders. If he finishes far back, he might be out of the race altogether. So he’s pressing for every vote he can, telling people he doesn’t have the money to pay their way to Ames, so if they get a chance to ride on another candidate’s bus — well, they should take it, and vote for Huckabee. “If you’re going to the straw poll tomorrow, remember, if you’re going to vote for me, the voting’s between ten and six,” he announces during a stop-by at the WHO radio booth on the fair’s main strip. “If you’re not voting for me” — a slight pause here — “don’t even show up!”
It works. The next day, Huckabee comes in a surprise second to Mitt Romney, who put millions of dollars into the contest and whose victory was a foregone conclusion. Of course the contest is flawed: National frontrunner Rudy Giuliani, candidate-to-be Fred Thompson, and the still-serious John McCain all skipped the event. But the straw poll is the first time actual voters express an actual preference, and Huckabee comes away a winner, leaving Ames with new energy, new prominence, and new financial strength.
But he also leaves with new questions. Like, who is this guy?
Taking a break from campaigning at the fair, Huckabee ducks into his campaign’s sleek black bus to meet me for a talk. Going through the issues that will determine the winner of the Republican nomination — the war, immigration, taxes, the economy, the courts, abortion — Huckabee emerges as an amalgam of conservative principles, pragmatism, religious faith, and solid executive talent. He speaks at length about his record in Arkansas, not only on the big issues but also on a bizarre episode — the case of a violent criminal Huckabee helped free, only to see him commit a murder — that will surely receive scrutiny should he continue to move ahead in the GOP race. If voters ultimately decide to pay close attention to Mike Huckabee, they’ll find a complicated, and sometimes surprising, man.
Huckabee was born in 1955 in Hope, Arkansas. Yes, that Hope, Arkansas, just like Bill Clinton. Nearly everywhere he goes, Huckabee tells crowds where he’s from, pauses for just a moment while it sinks in, and says, “But please, give us another chance!” Huckabee then tells them he is from a modest background. Paying the rent each month was a real struggle, and his father, a fireman, worked extra jobs repairing cars to make money. It was dirty work; Huckabee says the only soap he ever knew growing up was Lava, the gritty, grease-removing hand cleaner.
Huckabee was the first male in his family to graduate from high school. From there he went to Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, where he majored in religion, and then to the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. His first job was with the televangelist James Robison, and from there he moved on to become a minister at Baptist churches in Pine Bluff, and then Texarkana, Ark. During those years, he became a presence — and an accomplished performer — on local radio and television.
His new status brought with it an interest in politics, and in 1992 Huckabee ran for Senate against Democratic incumbent Dale Bumpers. He lost, but in 1993 he won a race for lieutenant governor, filling a vacancy created when Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker moved into the governor’s office after Clinton was elected president. Three years later, when Tucker resigned after being convicted of fraud in the Whitewater investigation, Huckabee became governor. He was elected in his own right in 1998 and 2002.
Beyond the simple oddity of their both hailing from Hope, there are some similarities between Huckabee and Clinton. On the campaign trail, especially in extemporaneous remarks, both are astonishingly good speakers. Huckabee might even be better than Clinton; people in Arkansas still talk about the speech he gave in 1997 to mark the 40th anniversary of the Central High School integration crisis. Clinton was on the podium with Huckabee that day, and by all accounts Huckabee blew his doors off. Huckabee can be that good.
More substantively, Huckabee, like Clinton as a presidential candidate, seems almost totally oriented toward domestic issues. That worked well for Clinton in 1992, at the dawn of what is now known to be a holiday from history. But it could be a problem for Huckabee in a Republican primary race still shaped by the after-effects of September 11. Huckabee seems to realize the problem, and sometimes it appears to frustrate him. That comes out in the first question I pose to him: Do the crowds who come to see him ask much about the war in Iraq?
“No,” Huckabee says quickly. Like the other GOP candidates, Huckabee supports the troop surge and believes the consequences of a quick withdrawal would be disastrous. But he wants to talk about other things. “Among the Republican candidates, there’s really very little separation about Iraq, with the exception of Ron Paul,” he tells me. “And yet, we still go back through it over and over and over again, and I just never quite understood why we continued to plow the same ground when there were so many topics we never touched. Do you realize that in four debates we never had a single question on education? Not one. And two on health care, that I can recall.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, education and health care are two of Huckabee’s strengths. He has a solid record of improving Arkansas schools, and he has probably thought through the issues of health care more than any other candidate. Throughout his adult life, he has had a tendency to gain weight, and during his first years in the Arkansas governor’s mansion he was quite fat. When he was diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes in 2003, and his doctor told him he had perhaps a decade to live unless he improved his health, Huckabee took up running and lost those 110 pounds. These days, he proudly tells crowds he has run four marathons. When he proposes reorienting the health-care system toward prevention, as he does during a forum sponsored by AARP at the Iowa State Fair, a lot of people applaud.
Huckabee’s other strength, at least for strongly pro-life voters, is his position on abortion. He has been pro-life all along, and he seldom misses an opportunity to point out that other candidates have not been. When I ask Huckabee about his criticisms of Mitt Romney, he says he doesn’t doubt Romney’s sincerity, but believes the former Massachusetts governor’s 2004 change of heart on abortion will leave him open to charges of flip-flopping.
“There’s no doubt that the Democrats will use these changes of position in a general election,” Huckabee tells me. When it comes to the Supreme Court, Huckabee won’t discuss whom he might nominate, but adds: “I would say that it would be a type of justice like Scalia, who I think is probably the gold standard of the justices.”
On immigration, Huckabee is a strong advocate of a fence across the entire U.S.–Mexico border. While Congress debates guest-worker programs, Huckabee tells me, the most important problem is being ignored. “Seal the border,” he says. “Until you do that, you don’t have any control over how many people are coming in, who they are, and where they’re going.” At the same time, Huckabee has taken criticism for his proposal, as governor, to offer Arkansas in-state tuition to illegal aliens and their children. “I have always said you don’t punish a child for the crime of a parent,” Huckabee tells me. “Frankly, it’s in our best interest to try to get that child on to a higher level of education.”
A TAXER AND SPENDER?
The area where Huckabee has encountered the most flak from conservatives is taxes. In the week before the straw poll, the Club for Growth spent nearly $100,000 to run ads portraying him as a profligate taxer and spender. “There once was a governor from Hope, Arkansas, who raised taxes like there was no tomorrow,” the ad began. “Who is that liberal tax-and-spend Arkansas governor? Bill Clinton? No. It’s Mike Huckabee.”
Specifically, the Club for Growth hit Huckabee for, among other things: supporting taxes on Internet sales and access; signing sales-tax increases on gas, cigarettes, and nursing homes; opposing repeal of the sales tax on food and medicine; and allowing a 17 percent sales-tax increase to become law.
“All of those allegations have pretty much been debunked, repeatedly,” Huckabee tells me. For example, “I have always staunchly opposed any tax on Internet access. I am adamantly opposed, always have been. For them to say anything otherwise is an outright lie.” As for the Internet sales tax, Huckabee argues that he supported proposals — also supported by other Republican governors — to let states collect sales taxes on goods sold on the Net by out-of-state vendors. “It’s simply a way to create a level playing field for taxes for Internet merchants as well as Main Street merchants,” Huckabee says. “It wasn’t a new tax at all.”
On the gas tax, Huckabee points out that Arkansas’ interstate highways were in terrible shape — among the worst in the nation. In 1999, the legislature approved an increase in the gas and diesel taxes, and Huckabee, who believed the increase was a good idea, signed the measure. Along with the gas tax, there was a $575 million bond issue for further improvements, which was put to a statewide vote in June 1999 and passed by a landslide, 80 percent to 20 percent. “I would argue that we did rather well on that.”
On the grocery tax, Huckabee stresses that he “philosophically” supported its repeal, but he felt that in the money squeeze that beset Arkansas in 2001–02 the state couldn’t afford it. “It was not that I philosophically opposed [repeal], because I have always philosophically supported it,” Huckabee tells me. “The only thing they’re going to hit me for is that I opposed it in the 2002 election, because I knew that we had already made deep [budget] cuts, and if you cut the grocery tax, there was no way to make it up.”
The biggest tax increase during Huckabee’s tenure was the sales-tax increase, which went to education, and it began not with Huckabee but with the Arkansas supreme court. In 2002, the court ruled that the state’s system of funding its schools was unconstitutional and ordered the state government to come up with ways to spend more money on education and distribute it more equitably among the state’s school districts.
Huckabee had to do something. And with a heavily Democratic legislature, it was a sure bet that more money was going to be raised and spent on schools. So along with a tax increase, Huckabee attempted to fix Arkansas’ amazingly chaotic school-district system. The state has 75 counties, and at the time it had 310 school districts, each a separate fiefdom with its own budget and bosses. Some school districts had as few as 100 students in K–12. Huckabee wanted to consolidate districts so that each would have a minimum of 1,500 students. He lost that fight, with the legislature choosing to make the minimum size 350 students. Still, that meant the consolidation of the smallest districts, with significant savings for the state. Even so, when the bill got to Huckabee’s desk, he declined to sign it, knowing that it would become law anyway. “I thought that we were not pushing for the level of efficiency that we should have,” he says.
So what does his record add up to? Well, the charges have not, as Huckabee claims, been pretty much debunked. Some of them are true. But Huckabee also cut taxes on several occasions, and he argues that, in contrast to the senators who want to be president, he was the man in charge who had to make hard decisions. “Unlike the federal government, governors don’t get to print money,” Huckabee tells me. Besides that, a number of his actions were undeniably popular with most Arkansans, with Huckabee working to meet the state’s needs while hewing to conservative principles.
As for the Club for Growth critique — Huckabee has taken to calling it the “Club for Greed” — it’s not the only authority on the subject. Huckabee has signed the pledge circulated by Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, promising to fight future tax increases. That has satisfied Norquist. “He has a troublesome history in supporting tax increases as governor, as did Ronald Reagan,” Norquist tells me. “But in running for president, he has made a written commitment that he would oppose tax increases.” Unless Huckabee breaks his word, he’ll be okay with Americans for Tax Reform.
Finally, Huckabee’s tax bona fides might be helped by his enthusiastic embrace of the Fair Tax, which would eliminate all federal income taxes in favor of a tax on consumption. The movement is strong in some early-primary states and undoubtedly helped Huckabee in the Iowa straw poll. It’s a pretty idealistic position; even if the Fair Tax had a chance of becoming reality — a remote possibility — Norquist and others believe it would be far, far in the future, with many steps in between. Still, Norquist tells me, “There’s nothing wrong with that as a goal.” In the end, whatever the Club for Growth says, Huckabee probably won’t suffer much harm from his record on taxes.
So much for the standard issues of presidential campaigns. The wild card in Huckabee’s record is his position on executive clemency, a power he exercised fairly liberally as governor of Arkansas. In the bus, I ask him about what is perhaps the single most controversial — and unquestionably the most bizarre — episode of his time in the governor’s office.
It concerned a man named Wayne Dumond. In September 1984, Dumond kidnapped and raped a 17-year-old high-school cheerleader in the small eastern-Arkansas town of Forrest City. Dumond was allowed to remain free while awaiting trial, and in March 1985 two masked men entered his house, tied him up with fishing line, and castrated him. People were stunned; the case, already notorious, became much more so. And that was before the local sheriff, a rather colorful man named Coolidge Conlee, displayed Dumond’s severed testicles in a jar of formaldehyde on his desk in the St. Francis County building. Amid tons of publicity, Dumond was found guilty and sentenced to life plus 20 years.
The case took on a political coloring when it became known that the victim was a distant cousin of Bill Clinton. After conviction, Dumond, who claimed he was innocent, asked Clinton for clemency. Clinton declined.
Dumond also argued that even if he were guilty his sentence was excessive, and his position won him some sympathy, not least on the grounds that he had suffered terribly at the hands of those unknown assailants. In April 1992, when Dumond had served just seven years, Lt. Gov. Tucker, acting as governor while Clinton was out of state campaigning for president, commuted Dumond’s sentence to a level where he would be eligible for parole. That didn’t mean Dumond would go free, only that the state parole board would consider the question. The board declined to free Dumond.
That’s where things stood when Huckabee took office on July 15, 1996. Huckabee tells me he had his doubts about Dumond’s guilt, and also felt sorry for him over the castration attack. On September 20, just weeks after taking office, Huckabee announced that he intended to set Dumond free, saying that there were “serious questions as to the legitimacy of his guilt.” On October 31, Huckabee met with the parole board. Not long after, the board voted to free Dumond, but on the condition he move to another state. Huckabee was pleased, in part because — given that the board had voted to free Dumond — there was no need for Huckabee to commute the sentence or pardon him. So Huckabee denied Dumond’s now-irrelevant pardon application while at the same time congratulating him on his freedom. “Dear Wayne,” Huckabee wrote in a letter to Dumond. “My desire is that you be released from prison. I feel that parole is the best way for your reintroduction to society to take place.”
But no state would take Dumond. He remained behind bars for two and a half more years, until the board voted to free him in Arkansas. He was released in October 1999 and returned home. The next year, Dumond left the state, moving to a small town near Kansas City, Mo. Within weeks of arriving, he sexually assaulted and murdered a 39-year-old woman at an apartment complex near his home. The day that happened, everyone knew that freeing Wayne Dumond had been a very, very bad idea.
A political storm erupted. Huckabee sought cover by saying that all he had done was to deny Dumond’s pardon application. But some Democrats claimed that Huckabee had pressured the parole board to free Dumond. What actually happened between Huckabee and the board remains unclear to this day, but there is no doubt that Huckabee wanted Wayne Dumond set free. And today, he knows he was terribly wrong.
But he’s still defensive. “My only official action was to deny his clemency,” Huckabee tells me in Iowa. He spreads the blame around, not only to Tucker, who originally commuted Dumond’s sentence, but to Bill Clinton as well. “Tucker could not have done that without Clinton’s full knowledge and approval,” Huckabee says.
I ask about the “Dear Wayne” letter. Didn’t Huckabee want Dumond to go free? “I thought he would, you know, be clean,” Huckabee tells me. “And he had a job, he had sponsors lined up, so at the time, I did not have this apprehension that something horrible like that would happen. I did want him to report in [to parole authorities], because I just didn’t know — you never know about a guy like that.”
As he talks, Huckabee looks down. “I hate it like crazy,” he says. “It’s one of the most horrible things ever that he went off and did what he did. It’s just terrible. There’s nothing you can say, but my gosh, it’s the thing you pray never happens. And it did.”
The Dumond case followed Huckabee around for the rest of his time in the governor’s office. In his 2002 reelection bid, his Democratic opponent based virtually her entire campaign on the issue. And Huckabee’s actions toward Dumond raise larger questions about his views on crime and punishment. Critics, and some friends, too, say Huckabee’s position was deeply influenced by his Christian faith. “When I first met him, I was going through his positions on issues and I said, ‘You’re a conservative, so I’m sure you oppose granting parole for violent felons,’” says Dick Morris, the campaign consultant who ran Huckabee’s first run for lieutenant governor. “And he said, ‘Oh no, I would never take that position, because the concept of Christian duty requires that there is a possibility of forgiveness. The concept of Christian forgiveness requires that we keep open the process of parole — use it sparingly, but keep it open.’”
When I ask Huckabee about that, he reminds me that he was tough on a lot of criminals, too. “Heck, I executed more people than any governor in the history of the state,” Huckabee tells me. “It’s not something I’m bragging about, I’m just saying that if it had been simply a matter of my Christian conscience saying I don’t believe in capital punishment, then I was pretty lousy in my conscience.” Watching him speak, it’s clear Huckabee feels deeply about the issue. If he continues to rise in the polls, it’s likely he’ll be talking about it a lot more.
LOAVES AND FISHES
The preacher in Huckabee comes out from time to time. After his good showing in the straw poll, he hurries from his bus to meet reporters and exult with supporters. “This was five loaves and two fishes, and it fed the multitude,” he tells them, stressing the big results he got from a very small investment of money. “This is David and Goliath, putting that little smooth stone in a sling.”
People see Huckabee on the stump, or in debates, and they like him. He’s sharp and funny and knows his stuff. But there’s more to him than the guy who makes the best joke onstage. He has spent years in a governor’s office, making all sorts of decisions he’ll have to defend should he become a first-tier candidate. If given the chance, he’ll probably be able to do so, and do it well. But his lack of standing on war and terrorism could hurt him badly with Republican primary audiences.
On the other hand, it likely wouldn’t be a problem in a general election, especially considering Huckabee’s strengths in education and health care. “The Democrats won’t be able to use that against me,” Huckabee tells me. “They won’t say, ‘There’s no way an Arkansas governor can be president — he doesn’t have any foreign-policy experience.’ That one’s off the table.”
So it is. But first Huckabee has to win the Republican nomination. And despite his early success, it’s not at all clear whether GOP voters, still deeply concerned with national security, will want to choose their own Man from Hope.