Published on TheHill.com on May 5, 2015
I was there in 1993 when Mike Huckabee beat the vaunted Clinton machine in its 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 in 2016 should examine the record of that race to see how well Huckabee ran.
The fundamental element in Bill Clinton’s rise to power, and his continued hold on it in the 1980s 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 Clinton virtually invented the hair trigger reaction time in modern television campaigns. When attacked, they lashed back with negative counterpunches and complete rebuttals.
Nobody was able to equal their speed or audacity in the give and take of paid political advertising dialogue — not the right wing of the Arkansas Democratic Party in the ’70s, nor the Arkansas Republicans of the ’80s, not Clinton’s primary rivals in 1992, Bob Dole in 1996, or Kenneth Starr in the impeachment proceedings. They all found themselves outmaneuvered and tied into knots by his canny dialogue and smart rebuttals. His wife 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 her 2008 primary remains a mystery.)
The only campaign that beat Clinton was the 1993 effort to overturn the state’s Democratic establishment and elect Huckabee as the fourth statewide Republican elected official since Reconstruction. And he did it by beating the Clintons at their own game. I consulted with Huckabee on this campaign.
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’s role in the campaign. While the state was rocked by the charge, Huckabee 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 Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) 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 types and degrees of religious faith. When he says the Supreme Court cannot overrule God, he scores points for snappy rhetoric but undermines his ability to have a non-religious 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 an image.
What Huckabee seems determined to do is to explore the fissure in the GOP between the country club and corporation on the 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 U.S. 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.
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