I hope Mike Huckabee meant it when he said recently that he's not sure he wants to make a second run
for president. Though he's right up there
with Sarah Palin in polls of the prospective Republican field for 2012, his odds of success are suddenly slim to none.
You could argue that the former Arkansas governor is a victim of bad luck. You could argue that he's a victim of his own bad judgment. What's inarguable is that Huckabee commuted the prison term
of a man killed by police after he allegedly shot and killed four police officers Sunday morning in Washington state, and it's not the first time he has been in this particular spotlight.
When he ran in 2008, Huckabee received much attention for having publicly supported and privately urged
the release of convicted rapist Wayne Dumond. Dumond won parole in 1999, three years after Huckabee became governor and discussed the case at a private meeting with the parole board. Dumond then moved to Missouri, was charged with rape and murder, and died in prison before trial.
In 2000, Huckabee commuted Maurice Clemmons' 108-year sentence for several felonies after Clemmons and a pastor said he had found religion and turned his life around. Now Clemmons is suspected of slaying the four officers in a coffee shop near Tacoma.
That's a one-two punch that revives longstanding questions about Huckabee's commutation policies and hands a powerful issue to prospective opponents in both parties. It also ensures he'd have at least two major battles on his hands during the primaries. The Club for Growth mounted a full-scale attack against Huckabee in 2008 over his tax policies as governor and can be counted on to do the same in 2012 if he runs. So he'd have to fight off soft-on-taxes and soft-on-crime charges at the same time.
How do you survive a Republican primary under those circumstances?
Huckabee, a rock-and-roll guitarist and champion of arts education, has a quick wit, a pastoral background, a populist bent and 10 years of experience as a governor. In recent polls, he's been at the top of the GOP field nationally and in Iowa, where he won the caucuses that launched the 2008 nomination race.
It's all ephemeral, especially now. The instant Huckabee's name came up in connection with the Clemmons case, the words "Willie Horton" passed through the mind of every political junkie in the land. Horton, a convicted murderer, raped a woman after failing to return to a Massachusetts prison after a weekend furlough.
Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democrats' 1988 nominee, never recovered from the picture the GOP painted of a weak, criminal-coddling chief executive. The Washington police slayings are the political equivalent of five Willie Hortons, says Max Brantley, editor of the liberal alternative weekly Arkansas Times
Brantley and other critics on the liberal end of the spectrum have wrestled for years with their respect for Huckabee's view that people can be rehabilitated, and their dismay at the way he exercised his powers. He used them more often
than previous governors and seemed to be swayed by questionable factors.
"He just didn't have good judgment," Brantley told me. "I'm all for compassion, but not for stupidity."
Politics and connections figured in some cases, Brantley said. He said Huckabee went easy on people whose relatives or supporters had helped him politically, or because his actions would be seen as a repudiation of Democrat Bill Clinton, his predecessor. That was the case with Dumond, whose victim was a distant Clinton relative and whose cause was taken up by Clinton haters.
Other prisoners, such as Clemmons, claimed to be on the straight and narrow
after religious rebirths. Huckabee was "a bit of a sucker sometimes for the noble notion of personal redemption" because of his own background as a preacher, John Brummett, a columnist for the Arkansas News
, wrote me in an e-mail. "He was perceived as soft or oddly sympathetic to prisoners. For a couple of years, the big political story in Arkansas was that Democrats and prosecutors professed themselves aghast at the rate at which he commuted the sentences of violent offenders."
In the wake of the Washington killings, Democrats and prosecutors are not the only ones with misgivings. One of the most devastating critiques, and views of Huckabee's future, comes from Joe Carter, the former research director of his presidential campaign. Carter wrote Monday
that he considered Huckabee's actions and judgment "generally defensible," yet "I'm convinced that had it not been for abject hatred of the Clintons many of these cases would never have been considered worthy of the governor's attention."
Why did Huckabee grant the commutations? Carter says it was courage mixed with political naivete ("The governor seemed genuinely surprised that he was held responsible for the criminal acts committed by those whose sentences he had commuted as governor") and too much trust in conversion stories ("The opinion of clergy appears to have carried a great deal of weight in the decision-making process"). Carter concludes that Huckabee is an appealing candidate because of his empathy and belief in the individual, and for those same reasons he will never get to the White House.
Huckabee is finding success in his current life. His talk show on Fox News Channel is the No. 1 cable show
on Sundays. He has a syndicated radio show
-- "The Huckabee Report" -- that airs in three 3-minute segments five days a week. He just finished a 64-city book tour for his feel-good book about Christmas, "A Simple Christmas." It was No. 5 on the New York Times bestseller list
on Sunday and No. 53 at Amazon.com
Still, it's clear that Huckabee is trying to keep his political options open. The statement he posted
about Clemmons, and read on his radio show
Monday morning, might as well have said "mistakes were made." The "horrible tragedy," he said, was the result of failures by the Arkansas and Washington criminal justice systems. He made no reference to the role he played.
In the friendly climes of his home network, Huckabee was more forthcoming. "I'm responsible" for the commutation, he said on "The O'Reilly Factor," "and it's not something I'm happy about." He said he acted on the recommendations of a judge and parole board and now "my heart is broken for four families." At which point Bill O'Reilly jumped in to say, "It's not your fault. I'm not saying it's your fault. I don't think anybody watching thinks it's your fault," then thanked Huckabee for being "a stand-up guy."
Huckabee told Fox News Radio on Monday that "politics is the last thing on my mind. It should be the last thing on anybody's mind." Just a day earlier, when it was still appropriate to have politics on the brain, "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace asked Huckabee about his 2012 plans.
Huckabee said it was "less likely than more likely" that he'd run if his Fox talk show continues to be a success. He also added the condition that "I would have to see that the Republicans would be willing to unite behind me." That was always a remote possibility. Now it's almost inconceivable.