The conventional wisdom around why you run for president is that you do it to become president. Maybe you're also trying to make a point, and maybe you're doing it for attention; the ultimate object of that run remains the same. But Mike Huckabee has perfected a new reason for entering the race, one that's unique among the varied candidates competing for 2016: This is just how he makes his living.
Huckabee, who recently declared his second presidential run, hasn't actually held elected office since January 8, 2007, his last day as governor of Arkansas. (Huckabee ran in 2008 and flirted with declaring in 2012, ultimately choosing not to even though he was polling near the top of possible GOP candidates.) But back in 2007, when he launched his first presidential bid, he more or less fit the conventional profile of a Republican White House candidate: He was just finishing his second full term as a governor, and he was an ideological lightning-rod, getting the stone rolling by telling a gathering of Baptists that "I hope we answer the alarm clock and take this nation back for Christ."
In part because of these Evangelical leanings, he managed to win Iowa's 2008 Republican caucus, gaining a new level of credibility as a potential contender for the party's nomination. Later, after Huckabee dropped out of the race, he was named as a top contender to be John McCain's running mate but passed over for Sarah Palin, thereby marking the end of his involvement in anything that could be considered actual politics.
Back then Huckabee's vibe was Man of the People, a guy with little money and few connections to the rich representing populist interests in the election. Famously, he even left the trail to go give a speech in the Cayman Islands, explaining that "you have to work for a living and pay your bills." But that has changed. Since his first run, Huckabee's become an odd feature of the new political landscape. Huckabee runs for president to support his career. And his career exists to support his runs for president.
For six years, Huckabee has focused on sharpening his brand as a pundit with the added veneer of real experience, a feel-good-family-values voice on the right whose opinion should be treated as though it has the imprimatur of authority bestowed on possible presidential candidates.
Following the 2008 race, he set about establishing his pulpits, which eventually included a syndicated radio show, The Huckabee Report, and a television program on Fox News called Huckabee, both of which ended this year. He has also written 12 books, including the most recent, Gods, Guns, Grits, and Gravy (seriously), and runs an educational company called Learn Our History, devoted to presenting the story of America "from a positive, patriotic, and faith-based perspective." And of course, like any respectable professional candidate, he has a political action committee, HuckPAC, and gets paid well into five figures for speaking engagements around the country.
This holy hustle has launched the former Every Man into the 1 percent. Huckabee made $500,000 a year from his Fox show alone, according to a 2011 report, plus more from radio and those speeches, which he often flies to on private jets — Politico reported in July 2014 that he'd racked up a quarter of a million dollars on private air travel to political events. On the side, he's earned extra cash with more questionable dealings, which included hocking diabetes cures and selling his email lists to advertisers of survivalist gear and homeopathic medicine. From these spoils, Huckabee built a $3 million home in Florida.
Regardless of what that says about Huckabee the candidate, it's very clear that Huckabee the man went to great lengths to ensure that he would never be wanting for money again after 2008. Rather than working the conventional world of politics, his punditry has enabled him to build the brand of Huckabee, centered on the large-scale Evangelical populism he favored in 2008. Under that umbrella, he's beaten the same drum in different ways from year to year, keeping himself in the spotlight.
In 2012, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, Huckabee said that "we ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?" In 2014, he suggested that Democrats insult women by "making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control, because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government." Earlier this year, he compared being gay to "drinking and swearing," and he said that Christians being forced to support gay marriage is on par with "asking someone who's Jewish to start serving bacon-wrapped shrimp in their deli."
Unlike most of his 2016 rivals, Huckabee's influence doesn't extend to the halls of government halls of government. Real Clear Politics currently lists 14 candidates in its polling data for the GOP primaries. Of the 12 who have held political office— excluding Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina—Huckabee is one of three who left office in 2007, along with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. But while Jeb Bush's name ensures that he will never be fully outside of the proper political apparatus, Huckabee's does not—and it seems he's more than happy to embrace the role of outsider, in a slightly different way than he did in 2008. In many ways, he's a lot more similar to right-wing ranters like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck than he is to the rest of the 2016 presidential contenders.
What all this has resulted in is a weirdo hybrid of all the worst parts of our political system. Mike Huckabee is a talking head who has talked so much that his talking has become its own sort of public office. When he doesn't win the 2016 GOP primary and shuts down his campaign, it'll just be another installment of his media empire, from which he'll move on to the next one, and the next, ad infinitum.
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