Huck Can Beat Hillary

I was there in 1993 when Mike Huckabee beat the vaunted Clinton machine in their Arkansas backyard, even as the president pulled all the strings he could to defeat the Republican’s upstart bid for lieutenant governor. Those who, today, question his ability to match up with Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail should examine the record of that race to see how well Huckabee ran.

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The fundamental element in Bill Clinton’s rise to power, and his continued hold on it in the ’80s and ’90s, was his style of political campaigning. While most candidates take their time in responding to attacks and only gradually realize that opposition charges are scoring, Bill and Hillary virtually invented the hair-trigger reaction time in modern television campaigns. When attacked, they lashed back with negative counterpunches and complete rebuttals. Nobody else was able to equal their speed or audacity in winning the give and take of paid political advertising dialogue. Neither the right-wing of the Arkansas Democratic party in the ’70s, nor the Arkansas Republicans of the ’80s, nor Bill’s primary rivals in 1992, nor Kenneth Starr, nor Bob Dole. Each was outmaneuvered and tied into knots by Bill’s canny dialogue and smart rebuttals. Hillary sat at our side as we managed these dialogues and can be expected to conduct her 2016 campaign with similar alacrity. (Why she did not in 2008 will remain a mystery.)

The only campaign that beat Clinton was the 1993 effort to overturn the state’s Democratic establishment and elect Mike Huckabee as the first statewide Republican elected official since Reconstruction. And he did it by beating the Clintons at their own game.

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Each time he was attacked, he lashed back, combining his patented humor with his familiar tone of moral righteousness. The final exchange in that heated race came in the last week when, true to the Clinton playbook, Huckabee’s Democratic opponent attacked his wife Janet’s role in the campaign. While the state was rocked by the charge, Mike kept his cool and was on TV the next day with an ad that instructed his hapless opponent to “attack me, not my wife.” By making the issue about family, he defused the charge and went on to pull off a narrow victory.

Huckabee, of course, has a problem. His strength among religious voters can be his ticket of admission to the final rounds of the campaign but can also bar him from winning, just as it did when he took on John McCain in 2008, only winning southern bible belt states.

He needs to run as a former governor, not as a former Baptist preacher. He must articulate his points in a secular language, equally accessible to voters of all different types and degrees of religious faith. When he says that the Supreme Court cannot overrule God, he scores points for snappy rhetoric but undermines his ability to have a nonreligious appeal. Better to have spoken about how the Court cannot change cultural norms or individual values than to have invoked a theological theme.

Of course, Huckabee could abjure all religious faith and the news media would still write about him primarily in evangelical terms. His record as governor should provide more than enough credential to run without looking back more than 20 years at his sermons and homilies. But such is the media — once labeled, it is very hard to shake that image.

What Huckabee seems determined to do is to explore the fissure in the GOP between the country clubs and corporations on one hand and small independent businesses on the other. With the GOP establishment falling all over itself to give President Obama vast new powers over trade deals, it will fall to Huckabee to ask if they are good for American workers.

But, if Huckabee evolves as a candidate — he has always been a fast learner — he alone in the field has had the kind of give-and-take experience in battling the Clinton media machine. It should pay off.

Also see,

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