With an Eye on 2012, Mike Huckabee Plays the Sarah Palin Card

Nice guys finish last—at least that seems to be the lesson Mike Huckabee has learned from losing the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. The former Arkansas governor made headlines last week when he suggested on his radio show that the Democrats' health-care bill under debate in Congress wouldn't have covered Sen. Ted Kennedy in his final days of battling cancer. "Proponents deny that the bill would devalue older people's lives, or encourage them to accept less care to save money. But it was President Obama himself who suggested that seniors who don't have as long to live might want to just consider taking a pain pill instead of getting an expensive operation to cure them," Huckabee said, according to Politico. "Yet when Senator Kennedy was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at 77, did he give up on life and go home to take pain pills and die? Of course not. He freely did what most of us would do. He chose an expensive operation and painful follow-up treatments." Over the weekend, Huckabee defended the accuracy of his remarks, but suggested his message was taken out of context by the media.

All that back-and-forth aside, what's interesting is the big picture here: Huckabee's own political evolution from nice-guy candidate into fighting conservative looking to tap into GOP anger over the Obama presidency. In 2008 Huckabee ran as a friendly Republican who, at times, sounded an awful lot like a Democrat. Your Gaggler isn't talking about social issues. As we wrote back in 2007, Huckabee was squarely to the right of the GOP. Among other things, Huckabee was and still is fervently anti-abortion and believes marriage is between a man and a woman. And he talked up issues that were red meat to the GOP base, like gun rights and changing the tax code. But what was interesting about Huckabee is that he often spent more time trashing Republicans at his town halls than he did Democrats. He chided his party for not doing more to help the poor and for not having compassion for the plight of illegal immigrants. More than anything, he chided the tone of attack politics. "I'm a Republican, but I'm not mad at anybody," Huckabee told countless town halls in Iowa—a message that no doubt helped him to win the state's GOP caucus, an out-of-nowhere win, despite having a little money and virtually no major Republican backers. He won a few more states after that, but it wasn't enough, and Huckabee lost.

Since then, the former governor has gotten his own TV show on the Fox News Channel and has written a book about his experience on the campaign and the future of the GOP. He's been campaigning for Republican candidates and appearing at GOP functions around the country—no doubt to build on the campaign he ran last time—although Huck, like others, is still playing coy about whether he'll run for the White House again. Yet Huckabee's efforts have been largely being overshadowed by another would-be GOP contender in 2012, Sarah Palin—that is, until he started talking a little more like Palin.

These days, Huckabee is courting the hard-core conservative base by tapping into the one emotion that seems to be motivating potential Republican voters: anger. And like Palin, he's getting a lot of attention for it. Besides the Kennedy remark, Huckabee has regularly used his talk show to trash President Obama's health-care proposal by suggesting the White House is trying to pass a single-payer Canadian-style system. He's gone after the White House on another red-meat GOP issue: spending. "Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff," Huckabee said about Obama's handling of the economy earlier this year. Fair enough, but what happened to the Huckabee who tried to run as a different kind of Republican? Seemingly gone is the kindler, gentler Huckabee, who talked about issues other GOPers didn't, and won over voters (and the media) with corny jokes and oddball campaign events, like jamming on stage with an Elvis impersonator in Iowa two summers ago. Clearly that message didn't help him win, but is Huckabee helping himself by tapping into the anger and attack politics he once condemned? Huckabee is still trashing his fellow Republicans, but it's no longer for being the party of Wall Street or for being caught up in petty politics instead of caring about average people, as he used to say. As Huckabee told Fox host Neil Cavuto last week, the GOP lacks real leadership and therefore could not be responsible for the aggressive town-hall protests this past month. (It was all, he insisted, grassroots "bubbled up from the anger of the earth.") "The Republican Party doesn't have enough leadership to organize a two-car funeral," Huckabee declared. "The Republican party is searching for a message itself." Apparently, that's something Huck knows something about.