Late last week, a nasty little scuffle of the premature 2016 presidential campaign reminded us why both Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee should be kept miles away from the Republican presidential nomination. It also reminded us that Huckabee thinks he can sell snake oil even to water moccasins. Neither the moccasins nor Republican voters should buy what he’s selling.
Most people forget now just how nasty things got between Romney and the Huckster in 2008, but it was rather ugly, with Huck’s camp finding ways to cast aspersions on Romney’s Mormonism while Romney’s team peddled dirt (of which there is plenty) on Arkansas’s former preacher-in-chief. (Of course, Romney’s team made a habit of playing hardball against every Republican competitor both in 2008 and 2012, before avoiding attacks on Barack Obama so fearfully that his general election campaign was limper than a Tom Brady football.)
One piece of dirt was the centerpiece of an ad that the Romney camp cut but never released; it involved Huck’s bizarre fondness for extravagant executive clemency. Nobody should be surprised that the seven-year-old ad somehow was leaked last week. That’s how the Romney people play the game: displaying starched white rectitude in public while bloodying other Republicans through third-party hit jobs. In the leaked ad, a woman says that her pregnant daughter was murdered by a man named Wayne DuMond, an already-convicted rapist-murderer who had been released from prison on Huckabee’s watch.
Speaking to to CNN’s Jake Tapper, Huck responded: “The only action I had in the case of Wayne DuMond was to deny clemency. He was commuted by Jim Guy Tucker, my predecessor. . . . [and] Bill Clinton approved that. . . . [Again,] the action that I took in the case was actually to deny a commutation.”
Huckabee is about as accurate in this account as the little boy who insisted he didn’t steal the cookie from the cookie jar; it was just his hand that had done it.
DuMond remained in jail after Tucker reduced his sentence to “just” 39.5 years. It is a matter of public record that Huckabee repeatedly advocated releasing DuMond from prison. Yes, he denied official executive clemency — but only after the state parole board had granted parole. As reported by the Associated Press, Huckabee at the time said, “The action of the board accomplishes what I sought to do in considering an earlier request for commutation.”
Several parole-board members told reporters, on the record, that Huckabee both personally and through his aides and appointees had pressured them to grant DuMond’s release. Before then-governor Huckabee appeared in front of the board, it had voted 4 to 1 against parole; after his appearance, the board switched to 4 to 1 in favor of release.
If the DuMond case were an anomaly, perhaps the Huckster could write off his actions as a random bout of intended mercy gone awry, although his dishonesty about it would still be troubling. Alas, the whole mess was par for Huck’s course. The AP has reported that Huckabee “had a hand in twice as many pardons and commutations as his three predecessors combined.” With those high numbers — 1,033 by the AP’s count, 1,058 according to the Arkansas secretary of state — there have of course been recidivists. Some, such as DuMond, were deadly. Apart from DuMond, the most notorious was Maurice Clemmons, who in 2009 murdered four police officers in Washington State. Huckabee had commuted his sentence nine years earlier “over the protests of prosecutors.”
If Republicans were able in 1988 to make so much hay of former Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis’s support for a furlough program that set Willie Horton free to rape a woman, just imagine what Democrats will be able to do as payback if Huckabee somehow wins the GOP nomination. Compared with Huck’s record of leniency, Dukakis was a veritable medieval dungeon-master, fond of using the rack.
Huckabee’s strange sympathy for hardened criminals makes him even more anathema to “law and order” conservatives than he is to supply-siders such as the Club for Growth, which again this month (as it did in 2007 and 2008) virtually declared war against his candidacy because of what it calls his “big-government record” of tax hikes and spending increases.
And as I recounted in 2007, based in part on my experience of writing conservative editorials for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette a decade earlier, Huckabee also had a long, long record of ethical scrapes (some of which bordered on the kinds of activities for which former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell was just convicted). Further, as our colleague John Fund reported that same autumn, Huckabee wasn’t exactly known as a good manager or team player, either. As the incomparable Phyllis Schlafly told Fund then, “He destroyed the conservative movement in Arkansas and left the Republican party a shambles.”
Huckabee told Tapper on Friday that people will no longer believe bad things about him because he has spent so much of the past six years hosting TV and radio shows. The public now “knows him” better, he said.
Huckabee’s Music Man routine will fool people for only so long. His image would never stand up to the blitzkrieg the Democratic attack machine would unleash if he were the nominee — in part because so many of the attacks against him would be rooted in reality.
It is true, though, that Huckabee does an excellent job as a media spokesman, putting a happy face on conservatism. In that milieu, he is an asset to the Right. When he governs — well, not so much. The Romney leakers, as nasty as they are, have done us a favor by starting to remind us of Huck’s record.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this column incorrectly said that former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis commuted the sentence of Willie Horton. Dukakis did not commute Horton’s sentence; he extended a furlough program to allow weekend passes even to first-degree murderers such as Horton.