Another Arkansas Governor Eyes Presidential Run

Posted September 23, 2005 at 4:21pm

Conceivably there will be two Republican presidential candidates in 2008 who’ll make a top priority of one of America’s biggest long-term domestic issues: health care.

One, obviously, is Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), a heart surgeon who’s an expert on everything from infectious diseases to health care information technology. [IMGCAP(1)]

The other, less obviously, is Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who came to the issue by a personal “epiphany”— being told by his doctor that he was so fat he’d be dead in ten years —and now has made disease prevention through healthy lifestyles a major theme of his governorship and his chairmanship of the National Governors Association.

A long shot for the nomination in a field currently dominated by such household names as Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani as well as Washington-based pols such as Frist and Sen. George Allen (Va.), Huckabee nevertheless is testing the waters. And he thinks he has advantages over Frist and other Senators.

“I think people are looking for a pragmatist who can approach problems and solve them, rather than simply deliberating on them,” he told me in an interview last week.

“I think one advantage governors have is that their experience in government is practical in solving everyday problems, whether it’s education or road-building or cleaning up the environment or promoting the state’s economic development, job creation.”

Governors, he said, “are not so much about making speeches as making decisions. And we’re held accountable, I can assure you, every day on the front pages of the newspaper, for everything we do and say.”

I once wrote an article saying that you’d expect a president to come from Arkansas about as soon as a great international leader would emerge from Bolivia. I wrote that in 1991, and Bill Clinton promptly did it. Can lightning strike twice?

Odder still, both Clinton and Huckabee hail from Hope, Ark. Michael Barone, in his Almanac of American Politics, observed that Huckabee stayed there and, whereas Clinton went to Georgetown and Yale Law School, Huckabee attended Ouachita Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary on his way to becoming a politician.

Clinton now has a reputation for being nearly the world’s all-time champion natural politician, but Huckabee comes off as being just as personable, accomplished and empathetic as Clinton did as governor — and without the baggage of venomous hatred from local enemies.

Huckabee gets high marks from local journalists and political scientists for the state’s absorption of recent hurricane victims, his outreach to African-Americans and Hispanics and willingness to take risks to improve education and raise taxes to pay for it.

On the other hand, there seems to be something in Arkansas’ water that inspires a Clintonesque detachment from reality. Huckabee told me that he won 49 percent of the African-American vote during his 2002 re-election contest with then-State Treasurer Jimmie Lou Fisher, a weak candidate whom he managed to beat by only a 53 percent to 47 percent margin overall.

One journalist called his claim “fantastical.” And while political scientist Jay Barth of Arkansas’ Hendrix College credited Huckabee with winning endorsements from some major black Democrats and campaigning with Baptist eloquence in black churches, he looked up election data that challenges Huckabee’s claim.

In two heavily black Little Rock precincts, 91 and 92, Huckabee certainly did better than then-GOP Sen. Tim Hutchinson did in Hutchinson’s losing bid against then-Attorney General Mark Pryor. Still, he lost those precincts badly, 366-71 and 508-74, respectively.

Huckabee won 43 percent of the vote in majority-black Lee County and 49 percent in Phillips County in the Mississippi delta, but did so largely by winning most of the counties’ white votes, Barth said.

“He certainly does a lot better with African-Americans than most Southern Republicans do,” Barth said. “And he tries harder. But I’d say he probably won 18 to 20 percent, not 49 percent.”

That said, Huckabee deserves credit for making himself into a health expert, starting by losing 110 pounds and writing a book about it, then launching “Healthy Arkansas,” a multiphase program designed to encourage weight loss, exercise and check-ups to ward off disease.

He unveiled his “Healthy America” campaign as NGA president on Friday at the National Press Club, and he’s trying to get other governors to emulate his Arkansas program and, as he says, “change the culture” on obesity the way it’s previously been done on smoking and litter.

After a number of “education presidents,” the U.S. needs a “health care president” who will expand insurance coverage, improve quality and bring down costs that threaten to bankrupt private companies and government treasuries.

On hot-button issues beyond health, Huckabee is an amalgam. He’s strongly pro-life, has been a high-profile backer of “covenant marriage” (which sets strict limits on when couples may divorce), opposes embryonic stem-cell research and supports President Bush on the Iraq war. But he leans toward McCain’s position on immigration, which is to allow illegals to obtain work permits and eventual legal status.

As NGA chairman, he’s also opposed Bush’s agenda on Medicaid — Bush wants funding cuts to drive reform, the governors want the reverse — and on the means of providing Medicaid to hurricane evacuees.

Politically, Huckabee has had his ups and downs in his home state. His poor showing in 2002 followed his wife’s effort to run for secretary of state, as well as controversial pardons he granted to dangerous felons and allegations that he accepted expensive gifts from friends.

On the other hand, he enjoyed a 67 percent approval rating in the Arkansas Poll last year, including 64 percent among African-Americans. Among other comparisons that might be made to Clinton, he’s a comeback kid.