For the first GOP presidential nomination debate, I tweeted my assessment of the candidates’ performance from strongest to weakest. I came to this conclusion by judging which candidates best helped themselves. Because each candidate faces different challenges, what each must do to raise his profile varies. My assessment of the best performers and my rationale follows:
6th Place: Governor Mike Huckabee
Since his failed run for President in 2008, Governor Mike Huckabee has proven himself as one of the GOP’s most effective communicators. With very little money, Huckabee earned significant support and stayed relevant throughout the campaign. He spent life after the race hosting a successful talk show on the Fox News Channel.
Now, once again seeking the Republican nomination, Huckabee’s task in the first debate was to showcase his rhetorical skills and demonstrate that his policy prescriptions hold relevance for the country as it exists today, not as it did in 2008. Also, as is the case with many of the Republican nominees in such a crowded field, Huckabee needed to stand out from other candidates who share his presumed bloc of support–namely Evangelical Christians.
“It’s time that we recognize the Supreme Court is not the supreme being, and we…protect children instead of rip up their body parts and sell them like they’re parts to a Buick.”
“The military is not a social experiment. The purpose of the military is kill people and break things.”
“When someone points a gun at your head and loads it, by God, you ought to take them seriously…”
“Ronald Reagan said ‘trust, but verify.’ President Obama is ‘trust, but vilify.’ He trusts our enemies and vilifies everyone who disagrees with him.”
Poetic lines like these punctuated almost all of Huckabee’s answers in the debate. Effective, memorable, simple, and punchy, these folksy responses helped him stand out among other candidates, like Jeb Bush, who struggle to come across as “regular people.” For the many conservatives who complain that Republicans fail to explain their positions in succinct terms, easy to digest, Governor Huckabee offers hope. In fact, Huckabee’s closing statement struck me as the cleverest.
As it happens, though, his rhetorical flair helped undermine an important policy position that he, alone, trumpets. For years, Huckabee has supported the consumption tax plan known by its imperfect moniker–”The Fair Tax.” The Fair Tax, through a series of rebates to the poor and an elimination of the Federal Income Tax, raises the majority of its money by converting federal taxes into a single sales tax. To fully understand how this tax works necessitates reading “The Fair Tax” book and the follow-up book which addressed its critics. Indeed, the idea is attractive once it is understood, and simplifying the concept is a challenge facing all of its proponents. To that end, Governor Huckabee highlighted a positive aspect of the consumption tax by alluding to “prostitutes, pimps, and drug dealers.” The effect of his allusion, a surprised reaction from the audience and a comment by Megyn Kelly “Sounds like somebody’s a little R-rated,” framed his response on an important tax reform idea in terms of pimps and prostitutes instead of in terms of the policy’s merit.
Finally, Governor Huckabee, who irked Mormons in 2008 by suggesting that Mitt Romney, as a Mormon, is not a Christian, must convince Evangelical Christian voters to support him over his other rivals seeking their support. At the same time, though, Huckabee corrects interviewers who note his tenure as a Baptist preacher by highlighting his work in the secular realm. Huckabee recognizes that his appeal must include, but cannot be exclusive to, his Christian identity. Tactically speaking, Huckabee must attract the largest number of a significant Republican voting bloc if he intends to win the nomination. Senator Ted Cruz, Dr. Ben Carson, and Governor John Kasich (to a lesser extent), pose the greatest threats to Huckabee’s Christian appeal. The former Arkansas governor fought these threats by invoking God in virtually every one of his answers. The extent to which this tactic worked has yet to be seen.
Governor Huckabee, like each of the nominees, faces an uphill battle to be the Republican nominee. The battle begins on the debate stage, and in his case, he did well to make a case for himself. Still, the governor must do more to appeal to his substance on policy issues to make this conservative comfortable to support him over all of the other contenders for the party nomination.