If you know the name Huckabee, it’s probably from the popular movie or the highly publicized weight-loss campaign of the Arkansas governor. My wife is politically astute and very knowledgeable. When I told her I was meeting with Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, she quickly replied, "Oh, he’s the guy who lost all the weight." The health programs Huckabee subsequently implemented also got national attention — most notably, the purging of junk food from public school cafeterias.
Governor Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister, was in Washington last Wednesday for a series of meetings testing the waters for a potential presidential bid in 2008. I had been asked by some Evangelical friends to host a D.C. meeting with Catholic leaders, and was glad to do it, given Huckabee’s pro-life and pro-family record. As a former Baptist minister myself, I was curious to see how Huckabee would connect with this town’s Catholic crowd.
As the 2008 election draws near, social conservatives are restless; they have no clear choice among the leading contenders. Some Catholic conservatives are already promoting the candidacy of the estimable Sen. Sam Brownback (KS), who has established credentials on issues such as life, marriage, and stem cell research. But evangelicals, who make up the majority of the Republican religious vote, may be somewhat hesitant to support Brownback, who is a recent convert to Catholicism.
Evangelical activists have been generating some buzz around Huckabee, who capped his years as a pastor by becoming president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention. He told our group that his decision to enter politics came after some public remarks by Dr. Jocelyn Elders, when she was Gov. Bill Clinton’s Director of Health in Arkansas. During a legislative hearing, Elders said, "Preachers need to get over their love affair with the fetus," and, "Preachers need to stop moralizing from the pulpit."
Clinton called Huckabee to ask whether her comments would cause problems among Arkansas Baptists. When Huckabee told him they certainly would, Clinton arranged for Huckabee to meet with Elders to work out their differences. After the two-hour meeting, Huckabee went home telling his wife, "If people like this are setting the policies that affect the way our children are educated in school and shape the culture in which we live, it is time to get out of the stands and get on the field."
Governor Huckabee follows the pattern of other Evangelical pastors who felt compelled by hostility to religious values to run for office. Yet Huckabee comes across very differently than Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. If you didn’t know his background as an Evangelical minister, you would assume he had been a successful Southern businessman before becoming governor. The predictable pulpit mannerisms and rhetorical fervor are muted. His manner is straightforward and disarming; he commands attention with quiet authority. In fact, he reminds me very much of his counterpart, the Catholic Senator Brownback.
Some of Huckabee’s remarks, I admit, were something of a surprise. After recounting his journey into politics, he concluded by making the point so often made by liberals that pro-lifers don’t care for children once they are born. "I’m not sure we have much credibility," he said, "if we don’t care about what happens to a child ‘in between’ birth and death." Most of his presentation recounted his work in Arkansas to relieve poverty and homelessness, promote health, and strengthen education. (His wife, he told us, serves on the board of Habitat for Humanity.)
The Catholics at the meeting were impressed with Governor Huckabee. No one was thrown by his emphasis on the kind of social issues so dear to the political Left. This was a savvy group who did not need to be assured of Huckabee’s pro-life bona fides, and who know a single-issue approach does not get a social conservative elected president.
I told the governor during the discussion that his remarks reminded me of Bush’s "compassionate conservatism," and asked if he thinks the GOP needs to be rebranded for the 2008 election. His answer was emphatic: "We must get rid of ‘callous conservatism’ or we are going to lose the people we need to win elections."
In national elections, Evangelicals tend to like a little fire and brimstone, and Catholics are turned off by it. Governor Huckabee, striking me as someone who never pounded his pulpit, may be the kind of Evangelical who can be successful in communicating to Catholics. Huckabee won’t make any decision, he told us, until January 2007.
Gov. Mitt Romney may have already surpassed him in connecting with the high-dollar, socially conservative donors. But if the Evangelical community puts all its support behind Huckabee, he will immediately become a contender. If so, the public will soon find out that the Arkansas governor is more than the "guy who lost all that weight."
Deal W. Hudson is the director of www.InsideCatholic.com and the Morley Institute for Church and Culture.