What Huckabee’s Exit Means

Sarah Palin hunting

What does it mean when someone who had a clear shot at being his party’s presidential nominee decides that he’d rather give motivational speeches and do a television show on Saturday night cable television? 

In the case of Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who was his party’s clear favourite to win the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, it probably means what he says it means: his heart wasn’t in it.

The litany of reasons why someone like Huckabee would not run for president is oft-repeated: you have to beg for money all the time, the press is actively trying to destroy you, the trail is hard and lonely, the prospects of ultimate success are uncertain at best.  If you’re going to do it, you have to totally commit to it. Anything less is a betrayal of all the people who support you.

Mr. Huckabee couldn’t make that commitment.  Neither could Haley Barbour.  Neither can Jeb Bush and (if the rumours are correct) Mitch Daniels. This is weird, don’t you think?  There’s a major party nomination there for the taking and no one wants to take it.  What’s up with that?

The likeliest answer is substantive.  Whoever is president from January 2013 through January 2017 is going to have to make some very difficult decisions; all of them certain to earn him or her the undying emnity of powerful constituencies across the country.  He or she will have to cut the military budget by at least 15 per cent, discretionary spending by at least 15 per cent, Medicare and Medicaid by 20 per cent at a minimum.  And on top of that, he or she gets to reconfigure Social Security so that it is means-tested and starts paying out later in people’s lives. 

In addition, he or she gets to deal with the slowly failing state or Pakistan, the failed state of Afghanistan, the collapse of the Middle East as we have known it, the unravelling of the European Union, a petro-cash rich Russia and the rise of China.  And on top of that, he or she will get up every morning and review a Threat Matrix that literally ages you on a daily basis. 

On top of all that, he or she will get to say to governors and mayors from around the country that there is nothing the Federal government can do to help them with their fiscal “issues.”  They’ll have to deal with Medicaid and unfunded pension liabilities and education shortfalls all by themselves.

Sounds like a job for President Obama, you might say, if you were Mike Huckabee. Or Mitch Daniels. Or Jeb Bush.  Better to let all that blood run under the bridge on his watch and run for president in 2016. 

Among those who remain, the immediate beneficiary of Huckabee’s departure is former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. He was all but certain to finish second (or maybe third) in Iowa.  Huckabee beat him there in 2008 and he would have beaten him again in 2012.  With Huckabee out, Romney is now much more likely to face divided “social conservative” opposition (Palin, Bachmann, Santorum, newcomers) in Iowa. The more divided social conservatives are in Iowa, the better it is for Romney.

Another beneficiary is Sarah Palin, who now has a clear shot at becoming the “social conservative” candidate in Iowa.  Huckabee was in her way. Now he’s not.  She will have to raise her game (considerably), but she’s been given a new lease on her political life.  She remains well-liked amongst likely Iowa caucus attenders.  If she can convert that predisposition to support with a good campaign, she could replace Huckabee as the “social conservative” candidate, momentarily at least, in Iowa. 

The other beneficiaries are not yet candidates; South Carolina US Senator Jim DeMint and Texas Governor Rick Perry.  Politics famously abhors a vacuum.  DeMint and Perry now have a credible opportunity to fill it. Former Pennsylvania US Senator Rick Santorum is too strictly Catholic to expand his appeal in Iowa’s Bible Belt southern counties and more Lutheran northern border towns.  Rep. Michele Bachmann is too inexperienced to capitalise on the Huckabee opening.  If Palin decides not to run, Huckabee’s turf is entirely up for grabs.