Whither Social Conservatives? A Conversation with GOP Presidential Candidate Mike Huckabee
The Pew Forum invited former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee to discuss the fate of social conservatives and how he sees religion playing out in 2008 and beyond. He also addressed how he has witnessed religion impacting public affairs in his roles as a pastor and governor, and how his own faith guides his public life.
Former Governor Mike Huckabee established a 2008 presidential exploratory committee in January 2007, shortly after leaving office as the 44th governor of Arkansas.
A significant part of Huckabee’s adult life was spent as a pastor and denominational leader. He became the youngest president ever of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, the largest denomination in Arkansas. He led rapidly growing congregations in Pine Bluff and Texarkana, Ark., and spoke about how those experiences gave him a deep sense of the problems faced by individuals and families.
Mike Huckabee, Former Arkansas Governor; GOP Presidential Candidate
E.J. Dionne Jr., Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution; Columnist, The Washington Post
LUIS LUGO: Good afternoon, and thank you all for joining us. A special thanks to Governor Huckabee for being with us today. Thank you, Governor. I believe your daughter is here with you, is that right? Great to have you too, Sarah.
I’m Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which is a project of the Pew Research Center. The center is a nonpartisan organization, and we do not take positions on policy debates. For the record, we did not pass out this snazzy “Huckabee for President” folder. It must have been his staff who put it on your desk – just for the record.
This is part of an ongoing luncheon series that brings together journalists and policy leaders to discuss timely topics at the intersection of religion and public life. Our format really is very simple. After our special guest speaks for 20 minutes or so, we open it up for your questions and comments.
The Forum’s partners in this luncheon series are Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and E.J. Dionne of The Brookings Institution and The Washington Post. Mike usually moderates when our guests are from the Republican side of the aisle, but it is E.J. who will moderate this event today for the simple reason that he is the one who extended the invitation to the governor. E.J., I’m glad to see you’re on speaking terms with at least one Republican politician.
Before I turn it over to E.J., I want to mention that this meeting is on the record, and it is being taped. That is because we want to post the transcript on our website soon after the meeting so that others have a chance to be in on the conversation.
Again, thank you for joining us this afternoon. We look forward to this interesting exchange. E.J., it’s all yours.
E.J. DIONNE: Thank you very, very much. Welcome, everybody. Welcome, Governor Huckabee. Indeed, I did write a column on Governor Huckabee early on, saying I thought he was a serious candidate, and my feeling is the only reason he hasn’t risen in polls among the Republicans is because I wrote that column. So I want to apologize to him for that today.
I decided I owe a personal debt to Governor Huckabee. For Christmas, my sister gave me a copy of Governor Huckabee’s best-selling book, Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork – it’s a diet book. You know you are in trouble when your ardently Democratic sister gives you a diet book by a Republican candidate for president. But since I have had that book in my possession, I have lost 25 pounds. So I think it’s providential. It has something to do with the governor, so I want to thank him for that.
He is the former Arkansas governor running for president. Governing magazine named him one of the public officials of the year for 2005. TIME magazine honored him as one of the five best governors in America. He received the AARP Impact Award. Was that for the diet book or for governing, or for both?
MIKE HUCKABEE: That was actually for the health initiative in the National Governors Association.
DIONNE: He was the past chairman of the National Governors Association and chairman of the Education Commission of the States. His official biography politely says he became governor in July 1996 when his predecessor resigned, but it doesn’t say the exact circumstances around that. He was first elected lieutenant governor in 1993 in a special election and was elected to a full four-year term in 1994. He is only the fourth Republican to be elected to statewide office in Arkansas since Reconstruction.
He became the youngest president ever of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, which is one of the reasons that we very much wanted him to join us here. Baptists are the largest denomination in Arkansas. He led large congregations in Pine Bluff, Ark., and Texarkana, Ark. While he was governor, his administration was very active in the areas of health care and education. We have never had a guest of whom we have been able to say the following: he enjoys playing bass guitar in his rock-and-roll band, Capital Offense. And he has opened for artists including Willie Nelson and the Charlie Daniels Band and has played at the House of Blues in New Orleans and the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver. Soon he will appear in venues in Iowa and New Hampshire. (Laughter.) He and his wife, Janet, have three children: John Mark, David and Sarah.
Welcome, Governor Huckabee. It’s very good to have you here.
HUCKABEE: Well, thank you very much, E.J. I want to extend my appreciation to each of you for giving up some of your time today to be a part of the forum, and a special thanks to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life for sponsoring this event. Having heard me speak before, I am amazed this many people would gather during lunch on a busy day in Washington to come and hear me, so I thank you. It must have been the lunch itself that attracted you.
E.J. and I had a wonderful conversation a couple of months ago. We mostly talked about the importance of music and art in education. It is something I hope we’ll get a chance to visit about today. When he was mentioning early in the introduction his fear that somehow my candidacy has not yet tracked up into the stratosphere because of the column that he wrote – You know, I don’t think that was it at all. In fact, E.J., if you would like to write a few more – (laughter) – it might help out.
You have a chance to read the biography. E.J. was asking if I wanted him to read all of the biography, and I said, no, please don’t. The fact is, people who know all that stuff don’t need to hear it again, and the ones who don’t know it don’t want to hear it. So I certainly wouldn’t put anyone through that.
Let me mention, I have often spoken where the crowd went to sleep. I don’t know that I have given too many speeches where I went to sleep. But we just did the debate last night in Manchester. It was a rather late night, and I had a 6 a.m. flight out of Manchester, which meant getting up at 3:30 a.m. and getting to the airport to get down here. So I may just literally keel over on the desk today, and if I do, just tap me and wake me up.
I also want to tell you that there were five of the 10 Republican presidential candidates on the flight that I was on. When we all gathered at the airplane it occurred to me – this morbid thought – What if something happened to this plane? Given the way the coverage has been for the presidential field, what occurred to me was that the story would be, “Today, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney campaigned in Iowa and New Hampshire. Oh, and by the way, five of the other candidates perished in an airline crash.”
Fortunately for all of us, and the airline, we made it here safely. What is really a miracle – for those of you who need any affirmation of the intervention of God in life – is that the U.S. Airways flight was actually on time. (Laughter.) And if you have flown them lately, you know that only God could have intervened to make that happen. (Laughter.) What’s more, the bags made it as well. As one who travels on airplanes a lot, I wish somebody in the debates would ask me the question, What would you do as president to try to make airlines a more efficient industry? I’m not sure that I have the answer, but, boy, could I ever explain the problem.
Anyway, I want to say thanks very much. I know that most of the time today is going to be an opportunity for conversation, which I look forward to. I look forward to it before it happens. I may not look forward to it afterward, so I’ll see how that goes.
Let me just make a few introductory comments. It’s always been somewhat of a point of curiosity for a lot of people that I was a pastor and then ended up getting into politics, running for office, and serving as a lieutenant governor for three years and then as a governor for 10 1/2 years. It brings this enormous level of interest from some people who ask, Just how did you make that transition?
There are some interesting points of opposition that I faced along the way. I love to tell the story of the lady who asked me in my early political life if it was true that I was a Baptist minister, and I said, “Yes, ma’am, that is true.” She said, “Well, let me ask you, are you one of those narrow-minded Baptists who think only Baptists go to heaven?” I said, “No, ma’am, actually I’m more narrow than that; I don’t think all of the Baptists are going to make it.” (Scattered laughter.)
My favorite story – a true story – happened in Malvern, Ark. – and most of you don’t know where that is – a little community of about 9,000 people just about 45 minutes southwest of Little Rock – childhood home of Billy Bob Thornton, by the way. Malvern is a community that has a festival every summer called Brickfest, during which they celebrate bricks, which they make in Malvern. So you know it’s a small town when your celebration is to celebrate the creation of a brick.
But I was out campaigning in the courthouse square, in Malvern, Ark., and this lady came up to me. I said hello and introduced myself, and she quickly told me, “I just want you to know that I have never voted for you, and I’m not going to vote for you. Under no circumstances would I ever vote for you. Sir, I wouldn’t vote for you if you were St. Peter.” I said, “Lady, that is fine because if I were St. Peter you wouldn’t be in my district.” (Scattered laughter.) For those of you who think that is cruel, I had already marked her down as an undecided voter.
One of the interesting curiosities – When I first ran for public office, a lot of people thought that because there were so many Southern Baptists in Arkansas, it would mean automatic support of the Baptists. I remember somebody said at one of the interviews, “Are the Baptists actives in your campaign?” I said, “Yes, every last one of them. Half of them are active for me and the other half are active against me.” Because if you know much about Baptists, the one thing you learn is that whenever two or more are gathered together, there are at least seven different opinions. So there is no such thing as a consensus in this Baptist family of ours.
Two of the major characteristics of Baptist theology – and this I’m being very serious about – One characteristic is the priesthood of the believer, which means that every person has access to God individually and not through someone or some other means. That is a very important tenet of the Baptist theology. Another important tenet is the autonomy of the local church. This is perhaps one of the most misunderstood nuances of Baptists. Sometimes the Southern Baptist Convention, which will be meeting in San Antonio next week, will have a resolution, and people think that becomes the new binding law of Southern Baptists. In fact, it means nothing more than that this group of Baptists, who are meeting in this particular convention, have given some affirmation to a statement, and that is all it means. It has no binding authority whatsoever on the individual local churches.
Most people think politics was this great detour in my life. The truth is that the pastorate – the 12 years – was really in many ways the detour in my life. I started out in communications. I was a 14-year-old kid who got my first job working at a little local radio station in Hope, Ark., where I grew up and worked my way through high school, college and later graduate school doing broadcasting; I really had anticipated going into some field of religious broadcasting. That was my vocational ambition as I got through the later years of high school and college. I worked professionally for several years in communications doing advertising, radio and television, and I loved it. But I thought that I would move from that and maybe one day run for office.
I came back to Arkansas in 1980, having had a four-year exile in Texas during which time I worked for a large Christian organization doing communications, advertising and a whole host of media responsibilities. A church asked me to come and speak for them one Sunday. I had been a part-time pastor when I was in college, so that wasn’t difficult; I said I would be happy to do it, and I did. They asked me to come back and speak some more, and I said, sure, I would be glad to do that. At that time they were without a minister, so they asked me if I would come and be their interim minister while they looked for someone, and I told them, sure, I can do that. Then after about four months they asked me to stay permanently, which I did for six years, and it was the most wonderful six years of my life.
My children were young – We have three children as E.J. mentioned. It was a great time in my life. Then after six years in that congregation in Pine Bluff, Ark., I moved to Texarkana, Ark., not too far from Hope, where I grew up, and was a pastor there for six years. During that time I became president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention and served in that capacity for two years. It was really that experience – and a whole host of other circumstances – that compelled me back into the thought that maybe there was some role for me – and room for me – in the political scene.
Never did I imagine that it would end up resulting in my being governor of the state for as long as I was. My first race was for the United States Senate in 1992, and obviously I didn’t win that. I mean, that’s pretty clear by the biography and the fact that I’m sitting here talking as a former governor.
I have told people on many occasions, I’m glad I didn’t win. I don’t think I have the mind-set for the legislative branch. Having been a governor for 10 1/2 years and having worked with the legislators, I know I don’t have that mind-set. I think there is a very different sort of temperament and spirit that one has in each of those two realms, and I think the Founding Fathers were geniuses in understanding that there is a natural tension between the branches of government – that is by design. And if it wasn’t by some unique design, then it had to have been providential because in the course of the way government works, there is some method to the madness in that balance.
At any rate, I lost the first election. I never doubted that my decision to run was the right one. I didn’t understand why I lost, other than – Politically, I can certainly understand it. It was 1992. Bill Clinton was running for president in Arkansas. Every Democrat that ever thought about being a Democrat went and voted that year, and it turned out not to be a good year to be a Republican, not just in Arkansas, but anywhere.
Of course, let me be honest with you. It’s never a good year to be a Republican in Arkansas. Only four of us at that time – three before me – had been elected to a statewide office. Even to this day, 86 percent of the elected officials in Arkansas are Democrats. The traditional breakdown of Democrat-Republican voting is 60-40. Therefore, if you have an election and a Democrat is on the ballot and a Republican is on the ballot, if both campaign hard and do everything they would normally do, the Democrat will win 60 percent to 40 percent.
As a Republican, you really have to work very hard to get above 40 percent, and a Democrat has to really have something going on in order to get him under 60 percent. It’s just the way it’s been for a long time. I think a lot of people don’t realize how blue a state Arkansas is when it comes to the overall political landscape – even though in presidential elections it tends to be red, or at least it has in some recent years.
All of that is the process by which I lost the Senate election and Bill Clinton became president. Jim Guy Tucker became the governor, and there was a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office. The state party asked me to run, and I did. If I had known then what I know now about politics in Arkansas, I probably never would have attempted it, but I won that year in the special election of the summer of 1993.
The average contribution to my campaign was $9. You’re not supposed to be able to win a race like that, but we built a very effective and strong grassroots organization and essentially went out and found people who had been politically disconnected. I was re-elected as lieutenant governor the following year, and two years after that, in summer 1996 when Jim Guy Tucker resigned, I became the 44th governor of Arkansas and was re-elected twice.
I think one of the milestones that I celebrate, not so much in terms of programs – perhaps we’ll talk about that later – but politically, was that in 1998, I received 49 percent of the African-American vote. It’s one of the things for which I am most grateful because I think sometimes people assume that Republicans can’t win that vote. I have said for a long time that Republicans have made a huge mistake by not understanding that they can win African-American votes, and they should do everything possible to try. I also believe that we Republicans have to make sure that we communicate the message that resonates down to people of all levels of the economic spectrum. Frankly, we have not done that very well, and as a result, we have had some struggles. I think part of the reason for the 2006 disasters was that we didn’t do that.
I know that the specific topic today is faith and politics, so I am very happy to be able to discuss that. I think my background provides a unique set of experiences about which people want to ask me. If you saw the debate last night, you know that it seemed like I was tossed all of the questions that had anything to do with faith, with religion and with anything that even approached a God question. At one point, I wasn’t sure if I was being interviewed to be president of the United States or chaplain of the Senate. You know, I was not sure.
A frustration of the debate process was that in three debates – California, South California and last night in New Hampshire – In those three debates with the Republican candidates, there was not a question about education, which I thought was unfortunate. There was only one question last night about health care. Very few questions – no questions last night – Think about this: Republicans were on a stage for two hours and not one question was asked about the tax system, taxes or economic development, which are typically cornerstones of Republican politics.
It was an unusual format and one that I think left many of us saying, my gosh, are we going to talk about some of the issues that people talk about at their dinner tables at night? Somebody asked me after the debate what I thought about the question I got on evolution. I said it was OK, but the truth is, I have been out there campaigning every day for quite some time and here is a reality: Not one person in America has asked me about evolution at a forum or town-hall discussion – nobody, not one. I get on national television twice, and I’m asked about it in California and I’m asked about it in New Hampshire. I’m happy to give my answer; it’s not that I’m ashamed or afraid to speak of it. But I’m thinking that all over America there were families sitting down to have dinner, and I doubt that any of them said, I wonder what the next president will think about evolution. I just don’t think that came out of the conversation.
Here is what I think they talked about: How are we going to afford gasoline at $3 or more per gallon? What is going to happen if our kid breaks his arm at the playground at school? Can we pay for the doctors’ bills and also pay the rent on the first of the month? Will we be able to save enough money for our kids to go to college and, if they do, are we going to be so in debt that it will take every dime of our life savings to get them a higher education? If dad loses his job this Friday – gets the pink slip – and his job goes to China, he is 50-plus years old, so where is he going to go to work? Can he even get close to the income that he is used to? Will it be that he’ll work for a company where he has worked for 25 years only to find out that he loses his job and the CEO who led the company into bankruptcy or into an acquisition gets a $100-million bonus, and he loses his pension and his paycheck? Americans are talking about those things. Unfortunately, in a lot of the forums that we’re having, the candidates aren’t.
I tell people that if you really want to know what makes me tick – to understand me and my decision process – do it in the context of my faith. I sometimes marvel when people running for office are asked about faith and their answer is, “Oh, I don’t get into that; I keep that completely separate. My faith is completely immaterial to how I think and how I govern.” To me, that is really tantamount to saying that one’s faith is so marginal, so insignificant and so inconsequential that it really doesn’t impact the way one lives. I would consider it an extraordinarily shallow faith that does not really impact the way we think about other human beings and the way we respond to them.
In many ways – I know there are some articles that are mentioned on the Web, one by Joe Klein on the second-commandment Republicans, which I thought was a great piece in capturing my own personal political philosophy. It’s really summed up in the old classic golden rule that Jesus taught: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
As I’ve told people, life gets a lot simpler – and I’ll tell you that governing gets a lot simpler – when you approach things from the standpoint of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I’m not as predictable a Republican as some people would like to think. By that I mean that I did not grow up as a child of privilege. I think some people believe that all Republicans have grown up pedigreed with propriety and a certain level of privilege. I did not; I was the first male in my entire family lineage who even graduated from high school.
I know what it is like to come from a family who lived in a little rental house and really worked hard just to pay the rent on the first of the month. My father was a fireman and worked extra jobs because being a fireman in Hope, Ark., didn’t pay enough to cover that rent payment. So he was a mechanic on his days off and rebuilt car generators back in the days when cars had generators.
The only soap that I ever knew as a kid growing up was lava soap. Do any of you know what that stuff is like? I was in college before I found out that soap wasn’t supposed to hurt when you take a shower. (Laughter.) I had a rich roommate, and it was so nice to think that there is a whole world out there.
I became a Republican largely because of deep convictions that America was a great place, not because its government was wonderful but because it could enable me and empower me to set goals and to achieve them. I don’t think we’re a perfect party. I think we have not captured the market on the best ideas. I have sometimes angered Republicans because I have said things like, “Republicans aren’t right all of the time and Democrats aren’t wrong all of the time.” I still believe that. If that makes people mad enough to not want me to be president then so be it. One of the problems in this country is that people – particularly people in politics – see things too much from a horizontal perspective. Everything is left and right, Democrat and Republican, and liberal and conservative.
Yes, some things are divided that way. Unapologetically, if you want to peg me on the horizontal scale, I’m a conservative. Anybody who wants to find out if I have a pedigree is going to find out that I’m a conservative, and that is fine. I’m not mad at anybody about it.
I believe that when people elect public officials, they don’t elect people to be horizontal; they are looking for vertical leaders. Vertical leadership is when you really are leading people on the basis of things that will directly impact their lives, like, Will we improve schools? Will we improve roads that people drive on? Will our actions make for a better environment, or a worse one? Will we have a safer nation with safer borders – more secure borders? Will our tax system be fair? Will it penalize people who are trying to be productive, or will it be a heel in the face of those who are trying to reach the next rung on the ladder?
So with that clearly having been spoken, I’m looking forward to the conversation with you to discuss how faith plays a role in my decision process. I will assure you that it did in my life as a governor. It helped me address the question of how to handle 70,000 evacuees who came to our state when Hurricane Katrina hit. I promise you, faith was what guided me through that. Not just in terms of my compassion for the people that we saw – It was one of the areas where I felt that the leadership of this country miserably failed us; they miserably failed us.
One of the few times in my life that I was absolutely embarrassed and ashamed of my own government was in the response to Katrina. I saw on TV people on the bridges of Interstate 10 stranded for days without water, and I thought, this isn’t Rwanda; this isn’t Indonesia. This isn’t some Third World country where we are looking at some television camera that is giving us this report, and we say, “Oh, my, how horrible it must be to live in a culture like that.” This was the United States of America. These were the neighbors just to the south of us in Louisiana.
It was beyond my comprehension that we could get TV cameras to those people but we couldn’t get a boat or a bottle of water to them. When they came to our state – in buses, in airplanes, in every conveyance imaginable – many of them literally with nothing but the clothes on their back, the one thing that I determined was that we were not going to treat those people like boxes. We were not going to allow them to be further traumatized, depersonalized and dehumanized by stacking them in some sports arena and calling that a rescue.
Instead, we found ways that involved the faith community. I got all of the denominational leaders and church leaders together. Most states have an abundance of church camps and scout camps. I knew the camp season had just ended, so we called together those people and said, “We need your camps. We’ll staff them. We’ll provide the people if you will just give us your facilities because you have lodging, recreation and dining halls and we can give people not just beds but also a sense of community.” Additionally, by spreading them out in 39 different communities all over the state, we were not overwhelming the infrastructure of hospitals, social services, schools and the job market in any one locality. It made perfect sense.
You didn’t hear a lot about what we did because it didn’t have the visual. Quite frankly, it wasn’t a great photo. The Astrodome in Houston provided a wonderful venue for photos and for this sense of the plight of the evacuees. But we were not interested in creating or perpetuating plight. We were truly interested in what was best for the people because it went back to the simple prescription: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
When we couldn’t get a meaningful answer out of FEMA, and we couldn’t – in fact, I started saying that FEMA stood for “forget expecting meaningful answers” – I called our cabinet together, and I said, look, we are rowing our own boat here. There is no cavalry coming called the federal government. We’re on our own. I can’t even guarantee we are going to be reimbursed for what we do. But that is immaterial. These are our neighbors, and we simply are going to do one thing: We are going to treat these people like we would want to be treated if the New Madrid fault had erupted along the Mississippi River and we were fleeing from an earthquake to New Orleans.
And I said, so when you see an elderly lady coming off that airplane, ask, If that were my mother, how would I want someone to treat her? I said, do whatever you would do for your own mother. If you see a seven-year-old kid that comes off that bus with that dazed look on his face because he has been separated from his family, ask, If that were my child, what would I want someone to do to help that kid? And then do it. I said, nobody is going to get in trouble and nobody is going to get fired if you treat these people like you would want to be treated. But if I hear you made someone stand in line for five hours to fill out paperwork while they were hungry, tired and hadn’t slept in three days, you’re going to be in real trouble over that. And it worked.
And we had an abundance of people pouring out from churches and civic clubs. To me, it was a magnificent reminder of why this is a great country. It’s not a great country because its government is always efficient; it’s a great country because its people and their indomitable spirit cannot be quenched when it comes to the needs of other human beings, when they are called upon and asked to be a part of the effort to help.
These are enough comments for me to start out with, and I will open for any question you have. If they are really difficult, then I’m sure our time is gone, it’s simply gone. So we’ll go from there.
DIONNE: I have passed around the governor’s very interesting comments on evolution from last night’s debate, and I would like to explore that at some point. But something you said really struck me, so I’m going to use my question this way. I was recently looking at some Pew Research Center data that found that there was a great difference between Republicans and Democrats in terms of the issues they said they were voting on. Your speech in significant part would work very well in a Democratic primary. Forty-one percent of Democrats listed jobs in the economy, health care or education as decisive issues; only 20 percent of Republicans did.
On the other side, if you took two hot-button issues – immigration and abortion, as I recall – the numbers were close to 20 percent for Republicans and only four percent for Democrats. So I have a two-part question. One part is, How is that going to work for you as a practical matter in a Republican primary? And secondly, you do seem to have tried over a period of time to broaden the agenda of Christian conservatives – for the Christian conservative movement. And I would like you to talk a little bit explicitly about how you view that agenda. Has it been too narrow? Should it be widened? And if you could talk about that, I would be grateful.
HUCKABEE: A few weeks ago, I was up here in Washington at a Gridiron Club dinner. I happened to be seated with a group of people, and I think I was the only conservative at that particular table. They were very nice people, and everyone was kind and polite to me. But they all described themselves as left of center, and they knew who I was and where I was.
We had a nice conversation, but a moment at that event was a revelation moment for me. After the preliminaries, the Marine Corps band was introduced to perform the national anthem. When the song began, without exception, every single person in that packed room stood to their feet, put their hands over their hearts and with deep, welling emotion listened with great respect as the Marine Corps band played the national anthem.
As I looked around that room, I realized that the Marine Corps band and its song did not belong to the conservatives or the liberals, to the Democrats or the Republicans. It was a unifying moment. And it was not about, “OK, the conservatives really believe in this song and the liberals don’t.”
I was struck by the fact that sometimes, we in this country end up thinking that some people love America more than others do because of our own personal convictions about where it should go. If anyone wants to drill into my record, you’re going to find a consistency of conservatism. I think that’s why, as I run for president, I believe that there is not going to be a more consistent or authentically conservative candidate in the Republican Party than me. I’ve got the purity of credentials, if that’s what the party is looking for.
I also believe that I would bring to the general election an understanding that being a conservative is also about having a much broader agenda than the very narrowly focused one that sometimes conservatives are either accused of bringing or, frankly, can be guilty of bringing. Part of that is because if you’re a governor, you can’t afford the luxury of being an ideologue. You just can’t. You have to make things work. You have to not only balance budgets, but you have to be evaluated on how well your schools improve, whether your roads are getting better and how well you’ve taken care of things like state parks and the streams that people fish in. Those are real issues that affect people every day in their lives.
I hope I’m answering the question, E.J., in the spirit in which you intended. We have allowed politics in the country to become very divisive, and it’s almost like it’s an all or nothing proposition. I couldn’t have survived or passed any legislation in my state if I had gone in and said, “OK, guys, I’m a Republican governor. We’re going to have a Republican agenda. And so, here’s the Republican orthodoxy that I expect every one of you to vote for.”
Now, I didn’t major in math, but I can count to 51. And I’d have never passed anything in that legislative body had I approached it that way because when I became governor we only had 11 out of 100 House members who were Republican, and we had four out of 35 senators who were Republican. We had a more lopsided legislature than Massachusetts.
However, we did get things done – We provided a health care plan for kids called the ARKids First program that was revolutionary and gave health coverage to kids who had never had it – the children of working moms and dads. People were shocked. It was like Nixon goes to China. A Republican governor proposes this health initiative for kids. And I reminded them, you know, Republicans like kids too, believe it or not.
I was a Republican governor championing music and arts for every school kid. Why? The reason is because I believe that if an education does not include the development of both the left and the right sides of the brain, it’s not an education; it’s simply a data transfer. All we’re doing is treating kids like databases, and a database without an operating system or a processor is nothing but a dumb terminal.
I came to understand that there is a reason why so many kids drop out of school, and why every day in America in addition to the percent that never finish high school, there are a lot of kids who are taking the most expensive nap in America with their heads on the desk – not because they’re dumb but because they’re bored. Every day they’re playing with video games and Game Boys, and they have all these wonderful ways in which to learn things, and instead we sit them at a desk with 30 other kids, put their nose in the crease of a book and say, “Learn.” And we somehow forget that kids, if we beat the creativity out of them, will become completely disenchanted with education. They’ll learn things, they just won’t learn them at school, and that’s the sad thing. As a governor, I wanted to see that true education happen. And I hope, E.J. – I’ll stop here to just make sure I’m answering the question you were asking.
Republicans are going to have to broaden their scope. We don’t have to give up on our principles. I think I am a living testament to the fact that I have never compromised on my position on the sanctity of human life. I have never had to compromise on my position that tax policy should be flatter, fairer, family-friendly and finite – those are the four criteria. I can explain to you in detail today why I think that the fair tax, frankly, is something that ought to be embraced by Democrats and Republicans, because I think it’s the most empowering type of tax system that we could engage in.
Having not given up on my conservative credentials, I also believe the Republicans ought to be leading the way in better stewardship of the environment and in development of an energy source that is not foreign based but domestically produced. I believe that we ought to be the ones who are really striving for a greater sense in which education is effective and productive. We ought to be leading the way in a system that doesn’t just treat sick people but one that focuses on wellness and prevention, which is what we better be doing, because we can’t afford the alternative.
DIONNE: Thank you very much.
JILL LAWRENCE, USA TODAY: I am sorry to have to do this, but I would like to ask you a follow-up on some of the evolution material. I have two questions. Last night you said that the question of whether you believe in evolution is really a question of whether you believe in God. Couldn’t it just as easily have been interpreted as a question of whether you believe in science? Could you answer that? Also, you often say that your view on evolution is not relevant to the presidential race. I guess my question is, Do you think your answer sends some kind of message to the science community?
HUCKABEE: No, I think science is marvelous and wonderful, and I enjoy the benefit of it every day from my Blackberry to my computer to the automobiles in which I ride and all the other conveniences that are the wonderful products of science. When I get sick and go to the doctor, I’m glad there is science out there. My answer was that when the original question was asked of us in California, I thought it was silly to ask us to raise our hands as if we were on a game show. That’s not a serious discussion of an issue.
Evolution is a complex issue. It’s a complex issue to discuss the origins of life. And that’s really the question as I interpreted it and understood it. What are the origins of life? Do you believe that life is the result of some metaphysical accident that happened eons ago and there has been this ongoing process of mutation and random selection that has resulted in life as we now know it? And if so, then it’s probably going to keep changing, and who knows where, how and when. And that’s fine, people can certainly believe that.
There are others of us whose basic premise of the origins of life is that there is a God and that he is the dynamic behind it – that there is a prime mover, as some of the ancient philosophers used to speak. I subscribe to that. And as I said last night, for me, it’s as simple as “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.”
A science book that I read today is dramatically different from the science book I would have found in the school classroom 50 years ago or 100 years ago. But the origin of life as it is expressed in the Scripture is consistent and has been now for several thousand years. I can embrace that, and to me it is not a conflict with science; it can be compatible with science.
I felt that the question was really not a question designed to find out whether I believe in medicine or whether I believe in science – whether I believe that the astronomers have seen things that we didn’t see before because we have better telescopes. I mean, I thought it was the kind of question that gets asked in a presidential debate, whether it’s asked of Democrats or Republicans, quite frankly, to see if we can create some sense of division. It has nothing to do with solving the problems that the people are talking about at their dinner tables, as I said earlier. So, I happily answered it. I think – I hope – I clearly answered it last night. But to make that the focal point of the race for president, frankly, I find silly.
DIONNE: Thank you. I also noted you quoted Martin Luther last night at the debate in your response to the evolution question. I thought that a cynical headline could be: “Southern Baptist Panders for Lutheran Vote.”
HUCKABEE: You know, E.J., there’s not enough Lutherans out there to get me elected anymore, by God.
DIONNE: So he did count them. (Laughter.)
RUTH MARCUS, THE WASHINGTON POST: I wanted to follow up on some of what E.J. asked. Why do you think that the conversation has been, as you said, so constrained in terms of the areas that some of your colleagues are willing to discuss? I’m curious about it particularly in the context of health care, which one would think – To some extent, from the dialogue that goes on about Republican voters all having health care coverage, all being very happy with their coverage, not seeing their premiums rise and not being nervous about losing their coverage, in which case, I’m definitely going to vote – Obviously, it’s good to be a Republican voter – Just a minor corollary to that, I noticed in something that you said that you didn’t support the call for universal coverage, and I was wondering how that was consistent with your very moving description of the folks getting off the plane in Arkansas from Katrina and how you would want them to be treated.
HUCKABEE: Well, let me clarify. I don’t want the government as the sole-source payer. When people ask me if I think we ought to have a single payer, I say, yeah, I actually do, but I want the single payer to be each individual consumer. I want people to be empowered to make their own medical decisions. I don’t want the bureaucracy of the government to be like the bureaucracy of an HMO where people are taken out of the process and the decisions that affect their lives are made by someone else. I don’t want someone asking permission – Is it OK to give my wife chemo for her breast cancer? I don’t want someone else making that decision or even saying where she’s going to get it.
I envision a society in which, first of all, our primary focus is on preventing the illnesses that we can prevent. Seventy-five percent of our expenditures today in the health care industry are on chronic disease. We would have an enormously effective, efficient system, and we could provide universal health care for everybody – giving them a stipend every month to pay for pretty significantly good coverage – if we weren’t spending so much of our overall health care dollars just treating people who are essentially sick because of three basic activities: smoking, overeating and under-exercising. Those are not all of the reasons we have chronic disease, but they’re a big part of it – the biggest part.
So it has to be, first, a cultural shift where we move from this sick care system that we currently have – it’s not a health care system – to a true health care system that puts the focus on preventing the illnesses that can be prevented and where there are incentives for the employers and incentives for the individuals. A lot of our problems are based on the fact that we’re still working on 1940s and 1950s models of employer-based health insurance even though people don’t stay with the same companies for a lifetime career anymore. That was fine in 1940-something when my parents and my grandparents were going to work. My grandfather came home from World War I, he went to work for the Hope brickyard and he worked there till he retired at 65, and then he died when he was 69. That’s about the way it’s supposed to work, and he worked for one company for his whole career.
The average person now will change entire careers three to eight times – not just job sites but total careers. So this idea of portability is critical in a health care discussion. If you don’t have it, you really are only endangering people so that when they’re at that point of their lives when they most need health care, in their 50s – as I’ve now gotten into that area – and they lose their job or they change jobs, they may be uninsurable. So portability is important.
That’s why when I – I want to make sure you understand when I say universal coverage, what I fear is that somebody wants to say the government is going to pay for it. Then I, the individual, have no skin in the game, no responsibility, and it’s like the current system with all third-party pay. The disaster of it is that I never really know what it’s costing. I don’t have a clue. And because I don’t have a clue, I really don’t have a care. That is, until I don’t have coverage at all, and then I have a total care and I’m in a panic. And that’s why the system’s upside down and we have to right it.
MARCUS: And on the broader question of the lack of conversation among some of your colleagues on other issues besides the hot-button ones and specifically on health care. Why is that?
HUCKABEE: I think a lot of the campaigns are being driven by consultants and polling. Maybe at this point, one of the reasons that I’m being as candid as I am is because I can’t afford as many pollsters and consultants as some of these guys and so I don’t have anybody to tell me what I can’t say. Maybe there’s a blessing in that. But I also decided that if I’m going to be afraid to tell people who I am and what I stand for then I don’t need to be president. If I tell them who I am and what I stand for and they don’t want me to be president then it’s better for us both to know that and not be fooled and then them buy something they didn’t realize they were getting.
JULIA DUIN, THE WASHINGTON TIMES: Since this is about faith, I did want to ask you a little bit about the beginnings of your faith. How did you become a Christian? When was that, and what were the circumstances surrounding that? And the other part of my question is, Why do you think social conservatives have a chance in 2008?
HUCKABEE: I became a Christian at age 10. It was the – The circumstances were that I went to a vacation Bible school, a little missionary Baptist church in Hope, Ark. I need to confess something to all of you today because I don’t want you to think that I had this burning spiritual hunger at age 10 and that’s why I went to Bible school. The summer Bible school program – I didn’t want to go to, but my sister went the first day and came back home and said they gave you all the Kool-Aid and all the cookies you can eat. Now, that sounded pretty good, so I went the next day.
I found out they thought I could only eat two cookies and drink one cup of Kool-Aid, and I really felt rained on by that. That day the pastor came in and talked to us about what it meant to be a Christian and a believer. He explained it in such a simple way. I realized I didn’t know everything, but I knew that it had really never happened to me. He asked if we would like to pray and ask Christ to be a part of our lives. I remember just as vividly as I’m sitting here today. I was so afraid – a very bashful kid. I was not going to lift my hand because I was afraid he’d call me out and make some big scene. But I remember saying that prayer quietly and privately in my own heart, knowing something very powerful had happened, and starting a journey.
The thing to understand about my Christian faith is it’s not an event, it’s a process. I always am concerned when people see their faith as a single event. It may start with one, but it is a process of life. That’s what I love about it. It’s an ongoing pilgrimage and adventure. There were many stages of development in my Christian faith.
When I was 15, some adults in Hope took us in on Wednesday nights in their home. These were people who weren’t being paid, they weren’t pastors, they weren’t vocational ministers, they didn’t even have education for this, but they just had a Bible study for a group of teenagers. But it was not what they taught me that had such a big impact, it was the fact that here were adults who were doing this for no particular reason other than that they really believed it and wanted someone else to experience it. And I was just overwhelmed because I had been, frankly, in a small church where it was essentially, in the vernacular of the Southern church, “get saved, go to church, go to heaven,” in that order, and that’s about all there was to it. And here were people who were talking about this dynamic responsibility that I would have as a believer and what that would mean. It was life changing for me. So that’s kind of the genesis of it and then, again, an ongoing development. And I’m still learning; I’m still on the pilgrimage. I feel like sometimes the more I know, the less I really know. I tell people sometimes that 30 years ago I was much more absolutely certain about how everything was going to pan out at the end of the world than I am today. I’m confident that it will pan out, I’m just not sure how.
DUIN: And the question then, social conservatives –
HUCKABEE: Oh, yes.
DUIN: Oh, and also, you are still an ordained minister, right?
HUCKABEE: Yeah. I mean, I guess, in the Baptist Church, unless you do something really, really bad, they don’t defrock you – (laughter) – so it’s sort of a –
UNIDENTIFIED: They don’t count running for president.
HUCKABEE: Well, it may happen because of that. (Laughter.) Being Republican is probably enough to get me thrown out, so if I’ve escaped that so far, I’m probably OK. How will, I think, the social conservatives win in 2008?
I think social conservatives will succeed because there are still a lot of Americans who deeply believe that human life is important and intrinsically valuable. They believe that families are the crux of our society and nation and that if we lose that sense of purpose and primacy of that basic family unit, our country will be in trouble not just economically but socially. I do think that we’re going to have to communicate it in a much more sophisticated manner that’s not offensive, that’s not divisive and that’s not so much – Maybe in the way in which it has been seen as an all-or-nothing approach – I’m trying to think of the best way to describe that, but – Confrontational, maybe that’s the word I’m looking for – Less confrontational and more conversational.
MATTHEW CONTINETTI, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: According to the Pew numbers E.J. cited, the overwhelming concern of Republican primary voters is in the realm of national security, yet you’re talking about fundamentally domestic policy issues. How do you overcome that hurdle in your candidacy? And a follow-up would be, how does your social conservatism and your religious faith inform, perhaps, your foreign policy views?
HUCKABEE: Great question. First of all, I wish I would get maybe more opportunities to talk about national security because it’s not like I’m devoid of any view of it or even unaware that it is, frankly, the most important issue, not just for Republicans, but for Democrats, too, in the broader sense. But I think the problem is that Democrats tend to say we’ve got to focus on domestic issues, while Republicans say we need to focus on security issues. The reality is it’s like getting on an airplane and saying which wing is the most important, the one on the left or the one on the right. When I got on that plane this morning in Manchester, I wanted both wings to be firmly attached to the fuselage; that was very important to be because I don’t think the plane would fly with only one.
For us to say that the only thing that matters is what we’re doing in the world of security and international relationships – If we have this great military power, we stop everything at the border and nothing comes in, that’s terrific. But if we’re a nation that’s spending 16 percent of our gross domestic product on health – and it’s projected to be up to 20 percent in the year 2015 – and we’ve got a bunch of uneducated kids who can’t compete with the Chinese and we’re shipping our jobs there – we’re not getting them back – and we’ve got several trillion dollars parked in an overseas economy because our tax system has choked out companies from headquartering here, then you know what, we can have the most secure nation in the world, but it’s not very secure if it crumbles from within.
On the other hand, if we have this marvelous education system, this fantastic interstate highway system and a delightful health care system where everybody gets all the health care they want and need but we haven’t taken care of our business at the borders, then the next thing we know here comes some more airplanes into our buildings or bombs coming our way. So for us to ever act like we can have one without the other – that we should even talk about one without the other – to me is utter nonsense.
I guess it’s one of the frustrations I have with politics – that we tend to want to say this is important and this is what we have to focus on. But I think if you’re going to be president, you have to focus on a big picture and that has to include domestic issues. So I’m talking about them not because I’m not interested in national security. I think we face a threat from Islamic fascism; I think it’s a real threat. I think it’s a much bigger threat than the average American understands because I don’t think the average American understands the theological nature of the conflict we’re in.
And it’s theological; it’s not traditional. It’s not over boundaries and borders. We’re not fighting an army that carries a flag and has pride in a nation; we’re fighting a mind-set, a theological mind-set that believes that their sole purpose for being on Earth is to annihilate the infidels, and we’re infidels. That’s pretty scary. If we don’t understand that – But that’s why I say that Republicans have to start talking about issues that involve those everyday lives. I hope that answers it, Matthew. I trust it does.
CONTINETTI: In terms of your faith and your foreign policy, is there –
HUCKABEE: Oh yeah, yeah, I’m sorry. Entire chapter – this is the book, the most recent one – and I’m not trying to sell books, I’m just trying to tell you there’s a lot more to tell, but let me give you the essence of – We have, frankly, squandered a lot of our foreign prestige – our international prestige – and that’s unfortunate. We’re going to have to work really hard to build it back.
At the risk of oversimplifying the whole discussion, let me just express – Sometimes the one thing I like to do is to try to make it where I can understand and hopefully others can too – When we were all kids growing up in a neighborhood, chances are there was one kid in our neighborhood who was really good at everything: he made straight As, ran faster, jumped higher and threw the ball better. He was just good at everything. When that kid acted like it and spiked the ball at our feet, waved his A-plus in our faces and danced around us when he scored the touchdown, do you remember how you felt toward that kid? Now, maybe you were that kid – (laughter) – so you won’t understand this.
DIONNE: They don’t live in St. Peter’s district either. (Laughter.)
HUCKABEE: From the looks on your faces, some of you weren’t that kid because you know what I’m talking about. When that kid did that to you, what did you feel deep down? Resentment? And what did you want? You wanted him to make a C. You wanted him to strike out. You wanted him to get tackled behind the line of scrimmage. Not because you really wanted his demise, it’s just that you wanted him to taste the turf so that he knew humility like you had to know it every time he shoved it in your face.
Take the same neighborhood and the same gifted kid, but this time instead of the kid rubbing your face in it, the kid is very thoughtful. When he sees that you really did your best and didn’t make the A on the spelling test, he says, “Hey, why don’t I come over and I’ll help you learn your spelling words.” And when he sees you struggling to hit the baseball, he says, “If you choke up on the bat you get better leverage and you can hit better, here, hit like this, try it.” Now, when the kid uses his strengths and his abilities and he encourages you and helps you to be your best, now what’s your attitude toward that kid? You want to be like him; you emulate him. You want to hang out with him. He’s your hero.
There was a time in this world when America was everybody’s hero. Now, we’re the bully that people resent, and it is not so much because we’re different in terms of our economic and military power. I want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, both militarily and economically. But the more powerful we are, the less we have to act like it. When a person goes around saying, “I’m in charge, I’m in charge, I’m in charge,” it proves one thing: he’s not in charge. You know that from your workplace. A person who’s really in charge doesn’t have to announce it; he doesn’t have to shove it in anybody’s face. People automatically respect him because he’s truly in charge. If America is really as strong as we ought to be, we ought to use our strength to encourage and to help. Not by giving away money – make sure you understand here that I’m not saying this is a giveaway, that’s not it at all. But rather than tell nations, “You’re either with us or you’re against us, it’s our way or no way,” we respect that in this neighborhood of ours, we need to treat our neighbors with the same respect we want to be treated with. It’s amazing what a little humility and a little less arrogance would do in that realm.
STEVE THOMMA, McCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS: Given the strength and prominence of social and Christian conservatives in the Republican Party, I’m curious why the three candidates who tend not to talk about faith or be identified closely with that community – Giuliani, McCain and Romney – are doing so well in the polls and candidates like yourself and Sam Brownback who do talk about faith aren’t getting any traction.
HUCKABEE: If I knew that, I’d be the number-one candidate right now. No, I think it’s money. Pure and simple, it’s money. Money right now is driving it. The sad thing is money is driving the media’s perception of it – and I’m in a room full of media people, so forgive me for sounding a bit blunt here. Every time – When even the fair and balanced Fox News network talks about the 2008 election and they only list three names when the others of us are out there busting our backsides every day to be one of those guys, it perpetuates the idea that there’s only three choices. Now, that’s not my position, and it’s not the position of Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter or any of the others who are running for president. But we don’t get to control that perception. And it’s very frustrating to us that if it’s a matter of who has enough either rich friends or the capacity to transfer some money from their federal accounts and get a jump start on the money-raising process, they become the inevitable and de facto front-runners.
Then the media says, OK, these guys have some early money, therefore they’re the front-runners. For those of us who aren’t perceived as “the front-runners” designated, anointed and appointed as such, when we go raise money, people say, “Hmm, like your message, good background, if you get some traction, we’ll support you.” And then you say to them, “Dude, you are my traction” – (laughter) – “You are the wind beneath my wings.” And then they’ll say, “Well, I don’t see you on TV much” or “I don’t see them talk about you in the newspaper very much.” And I say, “You know, I don’t get to write those stories, because if I did, I’d be in the front paragraph, not the last one as an also-ran.” (Laughter.)
Unfortunately, though, this whole process – and this is, I think, very frustrating to many of us – is being driven solely by money and not by message. It’s not a matter of who is raising the best ideas but who is raising the most money. Here’s what we’re moving toward if we’re not careful – and I know I’m speaking pretty bluntly, and forgive me if it sounds harsh – But if we’re not careful, we’re moving this away from a presidency and toward a plutocracy. I’m not sure that’s where we want to be. I still believe that the great value of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire first-in-the-nation primary – and even South Carolina as an early Southern primary – is that they force candidates who want to be president to have to go out there and talk to 12 people at a farmhouse and not just make a speech but also listen to the speech of some farmer who’s going to give you an earful. I mean, I think we need to not only talk to voters but listen to them.
I was in a factory in Manchester just the other day. It’s a high-tech company, but the people who work in that company are basically machinists. They get dirt under their fingernails; they have hard work. Visiting with them and talking – I heard from a guy who looked to be about my age and who has a daughter who is going to go to grad school next year. He said, it’s going to pretty much bankrupt me to get her to grad school. He said, my daughter’s great, she’s going to Cornell for a graduate degree, it’s going to cost $54,000 a year.
Suddenly I became so glad that my children did not want to go to grad school – (laughter) – I suddenly thought, thank you, God, that they didn’t think they needed anything beyond an undergraduate degree – that was painful enough. And here was a father who is out working in the machine shop wondering how he can help his daughter cover a $54,000-a-year education? That’s a tough deal.
The bottom line, though, is that I hope that part of what can happen in this country is that – whether it’s Sam Brownback or Mike Huckabee or any of the, again, the three that are perceived as the front-runners – we can be thoroughly vetted, not by our last Federal Election Commission report but by the kind of report we’re going to give to people like not just you, but to the 50-something-year-old father in Manchester.
BILL ADAIR, ST. PETERSBURG TIMES: I wonder if I could follow up on Jill’s question about evolution. You mentioned – Last night, you said if anyone wants to believe that they are descendents of a primate… Do you think we are descendents of primates?
HUCKABEE: No, I don’t. I mean, I don’t personally. I believe God created man in his own image, and I believe that it was a unique creation. Now, again, how he did it, I don’t know. Again, as I said to Wolf Blitzer last night, I wasn’t there, so I can’t give you the video of it and put it on the Internet this afternoon. I don’t know. But I believe that he created us and, again, the process or the means by which he did it – When people say, well, it’s preposterous, how did God – Look, if I believe anything about God, I believe that he’s in the miracle business and he can do anything he wishes to do. So if I believe that God can create heavens and the Earth, I certainly believe he can create us. Again, the process by which he did it, I’m less sure of. That he did it, I’m personally very sure of.
KATTY KAY, BBC: Do you understand, Governor, that when you say that your politics are driven by a Christian conservative faith – and it’s really picking up on what you were saying about the world’s opinion of America – that it might be a scary thought for many people around the world? And slightly related, there are some times, I think – a perception in many other countries that the social conservative – Christian conservative – movement in America is homogenous. Are there issues, though, on which you’re seeing fracturing? One issue I was thinking of as having movement was climate change.
HUCKABEE: Oh, I think that’s true. One of the responsibilities that I have, as a person whose faith is certainly front and center – Again, a lot of it because of my vocational background – I have to assure people that because I have deep convictions, it means that I respect theirs even more. One of the things that I have to explain about what it really means to be a Christian is that it does not mean that I think that I’m better than other people. It means that I’ve accepted the fact that I’m not very good at all. That’s what it means to understand that as a sinner – that you’ve fallen short and failed in your own aspirations – one surely does not have the capacity to somehow elevate oneself to be better than others. It’s quite the opposite. It means that I know life is a struggle because it has been for me, and I know that I’m imperfect and that if it weren’t for God’s grace I couldn’t even live with myself much less expect other people to live with me.
KAY: But it’s the Christian language of this presidency that has perpetuated some of the anti-American feelings around the world.
HUCKABEE: It goes back to what I said earlier. There’s an important need for some real humility, and that’s not just language, that has to be spirit. You can say the words, but you have to have the spirit behind those words.
Let me give you some examples. I think that as people get to find out more and more about me, for example, as governor – Due to my background, when I was first sworn in there were people who were scared to death that I was going to replace the Capitol dome with a steeple, that we were going to quit having legislative sessions and have prayer meetings, and that we were going to get rid of legislators and have deacons and elders. Well, obviously, that didn’t happen. I think people thought that I would spend all my time trying to stop abortion and – I’m trying to think of what else – putting Bible readings and prayer in schools. They thought that those issues would be my focus as a governor.
Instead, I spent my time on education improvements, the largest-ever road program in our state and the health care initiative for kids. We passed pro-life legislation. I was consistent in my views and values as they related to social issues, but 91 percent of our state budget is spent on education, prisons and Medicaid, so it didn’t make sense to spend 91 percent of my time on issues that didn’t reflect my real job.
When 9/11 happened, one of the first things I did was to call a meeting of all the Muslim clerics in the state at the state Capitol in my office, not only to meet with them but then to go to a news conference shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim clerics in my state and ask the people of Arkansas not to hold them responsible for what others had done in the name of Islam when it was not consistent with what these people stood for. To remind them that these Muslims were our neighbors and friends and that we could not allow ourselves to blame them, to hate them, to hold them responsible or to ostracize them because to do so would be to take on the very spirit of those who flew those airplanes into the buildings.
I’ve been to Israel nine times. I’ve spoken in synagogues. You’ll find no one who’s more respectful, and I think mindful, of the fact that though I have deep spiritual convictions, I’ve also gone on national television and said that it doesn’t bother me so much if a person says he’s an atheist, it bothers me when a person says he’s a Christian but refuses to live like one. That bothers me a great deal more because I was asked about – I think it was, which congressman in California that –
DIONNE: Pete Stark?
HUCKABEE: Yes, Pete Stark said, “Yes, I’m an atheist,” and I was asked, “How does it make you feel? Do you think he ought to be out of Congress?” I think they thought I was going to jump all over it, but I said, “He’s honest; I can handle his honesty. It’s the dishonesty of a person who says he’s a Christian but hates people and is filled with bigotry and prejudice that bothers me a whole lot more than a person who says, he’s an atheist.”
ADELLE BANKS, RELIGION NEWS SERVICE: You questioned some candidates who distanced themselves from talking about faith, so I’m wondering where you think the line should be drawn between what’s acceptable to talk about and what’s a personal and private matter.
HUCKABEE: Well, I think when asked a question, we should give an honest answer. It’s not so much that we ought to go around making that the focal point of a speech, but when someone asks me, I shouldn’t run from it and say, oh no, I don’t talk about those things. That’s where I think it becomes – The important issue, Adelle, is simply a matter of candor, and if nobody brings it up I don’t necessarily think a candidate has to bring it up. But if a candidate is specifically asked about faith and then he acts like that’s sort of an item on the shelf that we don’t bring out in the public, then I’m concerned. I don’t mind candidates being asked, What’s your favorite football team, or What’s your favorite dessert? I don’t know whether it matters whether one is a president who likes one over another, but it may just be a part of understanding that person’s personality, what makes that person tick and what drives them.
When a person says he has a faith but then says it doesn’t affect him – I mean, on its face – that should be problematic to all of us because by nature, faith is something that goes to the inner soul of who we are. So it’d be better to say, I really don’t have a faith, so therefore, I’m not judged by it and faith doesn’t influence me. That, to me, makes perfect sense. I’m a logical person, basically. I spent years debating in high school and college, and one of the things I always think to do is always follow something to its logical conclusion. So if a person says, “My faith doesn’t impact me,” I have to logically conclude that the person’s faith isn’t very real. And that’s why I say about the Pete Stark question – Pete Stark says faith doesn’t influence him because he doesn’t have one. I can understand that; that makes logical sense. But a person who says, “Faith is very important to me, it is so valuable, oh, it’s just – you know, the public – I love God so much,” but then you ask, “Well, how does it affect you?” and the response is,
“Oh, it doesn’t.” There’s a disconnect there for me.
CORINE HEGLAND, NATIONAL JOURNAL: Two questions: what did the five of you discuss on the plane this morning – (laughter) – and how would you describe the relationship between Christian conservatives today and the Republican Party today, and how has that relationship changed over the past eight years?
HUCKABEE: What we discussed on the plane was – There were five of us and if there were only four parachutes, who didn’t get one. No, we just exchanged pleasantries, and we all sat in different sections. Fortunately, we get along fairly well. I mean, it’s really – There are several other candidates I really like. I think they’re pretty good people.
UNIDENTIFIED: Which candidates do you not like? (Laughter.)
HUCKABEE: I should have known you were going to ask that. I like all the likeable ones. (Laughter.) They’re really nice people.
UNIDENTIFIED: We know who they are.
HUCKABEE: I bet you do. (Chuckles.) And I’m sorry, I got totally off the track.
HEGLAND: How would you describe the relationship between Christian conservatives and the Republican Party today, and how has that relationship changed over the last eight years?
HUCKABEE: I think one of the things that’s changed – Christian conservatives, I believe, are on the brink of becoming irrelevant in this election cycle if they do not remain active because they really believe something about their faith that drives them into the political arena. In other words, if Christian conservatives who have historically said that the reason they’re involved is because of their intense passion about the sanctity of human life and about the traditional family and other issues that really emanate from their faith – If they say, “Well those issues aren’t that important this time, what’s important is taxes, what’s important is national security,” then, quite frankly, they’re just another Republican special interest group.
They’re no different than the Republican women of Saline County, Ark., and they’re up for grabs. They’re up for grabs not on the basis of their relationship to faith, which is the reason they’re supposedly involved, they’re up for grabs, again, because they’re just another political entity. I think it means, then, the beginning of their irrelevancy as a Christian group.
To make an analogy, if Martin Luther King Jr. had ever come to the place – If he said, you know, racial equality and social justice really, that’s not what’s going to drive us anymore, what we’re really interested in is – We’re just interested in – Gosh, I’m trying to think, some kind of comparable thing – We’re interested in neighborhoods and schools – and not necessarily that we can all live in them, we’re just interested in the quality of – Maybe water quality or soil quality, something that really didn’t relate to social justice in the sense of the racial struggle that they had been through – Then people would have scratched their head and said, then what’s the point? What’s the point?
I really do think that if Christian conservatives, who have had a real role to play in the Republican process and have held the Republican Party’s feet to the fire on issues as they relate to traditional conservative social areas, no longer play that role, it not only is going to be the end of relevancy for them, but I also think that it means that the Republican Party will lose a lot of people. They will say, well, you know what, if they’re not going to be the party that really cares about these issues, I’ll go home to the Democratic Party. A lot of those folks came from the Democratic Party to begin with.
HEGLAND: What is driving that change? What is driving that transformation for Christian conservatives as you see it?
DIONNE: And if what you say is true, why is Giuliani doing so well? Both questions, I think, link together.
HUCKABEE: The answer to the second question, about Giuliani, is I don’t know. I mean, that’s the honest answer. I don’t know. I think people perceive – I mean, he is a strong personality and that’s what’s doing it in my assessment. To drive over the cliff today and just go ahead and fully do it, let me just say, I think that when you ask why there are people in the Christian conservative movement who aren’t focused only on faith issues, I think because they’ve forgotten why they got in, just to be blunt. I think some have forgotten why they ever got in. And if I forget why I got in, I’ll become irrelevant too. So I think all of us need to be reminded from time to time.
It doesn’t matter, again, whether we’re on the left or the right, most of us – Let’s face it, most of us are driven by deep, deep convictions. Usually there may either be some seminal event in our lives that’s pushed us into something that we’re doing. Or maybe it was – to borrow a phrase from last night – an evolution of process that brought us there. But the point is that we grow in our convictions that – By golly, why do people run for school board? Usually it’s because they get sick of the way their schools are run and they say, my kids are going to go to a better school and I’m going to help them do it. Why do people run for city council or mayor or, for that matter, for senator or president, or anything else? Because there comes a point at which we say, I can make a difference.
When we’re no longer interested in making a difference, rattling the cage, rocking the boat and stirring things up and all we really want to do is just make sure we have a “seat at the table,” get invited to the nice parties and get on the best invitation lists, we become part of the problem, and somebody’s going to come along who wants to rock the boat again. That’s the genius of our system. The brilliance of our system is that somebody – Once we get really comfortable in it and it becomes about perpetuating our comfort, then somebody’s going to come along who isn’t so comfortable and they’re going to rock the boat. And thank God they will because that’s what keeps this ship afloat anyway.
ROB MARUS, ASSOCIATED BAPTIST PRESS: To follow up on that and to go back to your earlier complaint about the fact that so much attention is paid in the early rounds of these primaries to the top money gainers, is the nexus between those two perceptions – Does that vindicate what a lot of Democrats and others have been saying for 10 or 20 years about the Christian conservative movement and the Republican Party, that business Republicans are just using you for your support?
And on a separate issue – I hate to ask about it again, but to come at it from a different angle – On evolution, I think maybe one of the reasons that my colleagues have asked questions about that in the past is because what one believes about a personal theological concept can end up influencing what one does policy-wise. In the case of evolution, we have school boards supporting the teaching of so-called intelligent design, which a lot of folks think is just gussied up creationism, and we have President Bush endorsing that view. Likewise, we have President Bush endorsing a ban on same-sex marriage because of his personal beliefs about the sanctity of marriage in the religious realm but not necessarily in a civil realm. So the question is, Where do you draw the line between your personal beliefs as a conservative Baptist and what you have to do as a governing figure in a pluralistic society that has the Constitution with a First Amendment?
HUCKABEE: Sure, I think it’s a fair question to ask as it relates to school policy. But then, that’s a good question to ask for somebody running for school board, or even governor, perhaps, but not necessarily for president. The reason is that in this country, education and the curriculum are designed at the state level. That’s why one of the things I said last night – I’d have to look at the transcript to see – But I think I made the comment that I’m running for president. I’m not trying to design the science curriculum for the eighth grade. That’s how I feel. It’s not an issue that a president is going to have a lot of powerful influence in, if we truly believe in the 10th Amendment, which says that things that are not written into the constitution ought to be left to the states. Frankly, there’s an area where I have strong disagreement with the current administration – a disregard for the 10th Amendment. So that’s why I don’t think it’s the most critical issue.
MARUS: Well, to follow up on that, though – The president does have the authority to appoint Supreme Court justices and to appoint a solicitor general who argues a certain side of the case. So in that sense, you have all kinds of control over what happens on a state and local level with these sorts of constitutional issues.
HUCKABEE: I think that’s a fair question. I’ve held the belief, and said so publicly, that judges shouldn’t make law, they ought to follow it, and they ought to make sure they interpret it and interpret it correctly as strict constructionists.
DIONNE: I see two hands. Anybody else – three. What I’d like to ask each of you is if you could ask a brief question – This does make it possible for the governor to evade one of them. But his deep ethical convictions will not allow him to do that. So we’ll start with Jay –
HUCKABEE: (Chuckles.) I might make an exception today though, E.J.
DIONNE: Let’s start with Jay.
JAY CARNEY, TIME: Mine will be quick and easy. I’m going back to where E.J. started, mentioning those issues that sounded very much like Democratic themes. You mentioned outsourcing – essentially – and income disparities – vast salaries by CEOs versus the people who work for them. Are you suggesting that as a Republican president, you would take policy action, especially with the second one?
DIONNE: I’ll just put all the questions on the table and then you can answer because I want to make sure everybody gets in.
HUCKABEE: Oh, it’s a multiple choice. I like that.
DIONNE: No, no, no, you’re required – all three.
HUCKABEE: Oh, OK.
DENNIS CROWLEY, UNITED NEWS AND INFORMATION: Do you think Christians or conservative Christians are a little confused about the Establishment Clause and the role of the separation of church and state and are not stepping up and getting involved in politics in their community because they’re a little unsure if that’s the role of Christian leaders in their community?
MATT STEARNS, McCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS: Immigration reform – A lot of supporters of comprehensive reform, such as Richard Land and Ted Kennedy, use the language of faith to defend their position. And I wonder, since you talk about the importance of your faith in your policies, do you support comprehensive immigration reform? Where do you come down on that?
HUCKABEE: OK, let me just take them in order. I’ll try to be brief because I know we’re running short on time, which is probably a saving grace for me to not have a lot of time to get myself in more trouble.
On the jobs outsourcing – It does trouble me greatly. Frankly, my faith does generate this thought that when CEOs are making 500 times the average wage of their workers, how can one justify that? Do I think that there is a free enterprise system that the market essentially decides? Yes. But ethically – This is not as much an issue about legality and do you pass a law that says a CEO can’t earn – But ethically, I think a president ought to call out companies – and I think people ought to call out companies – in which the CEO leads his company into bankruptcy – It has happened many times in this country – He leads his company into bankruptcy and gets a $100-million bonus while the workers down below end up losing their jobs and have worked 20 and 30 years for pensions that are gone. They’re gone.
That’s immoral. That is a moral issue. I don’t see how we can call it anything other than a moral issue. That’s not free enterprise; that’s theft. I think a president ought to be bold, and if there is a way to do a policy that does not disrupt or interfere with the free enterprise concept, then those actions should be taken.
It’s really sad. Look at the airline industry. I said something tacky about the airlines when I started, and it may be a good way to kind of bring it to a close. The baggage handlers, the flight attendants, the gate people and the pilots, in many airlines, are all taking significant pay cuts yet the CEO gets a big, big, huge bonus – for taking them into bankruptcy. Now, tell me how on Earth? Part of it is that we have some issues that do relate to regulation on corporate boards where there is a lot of hand-holding and collusion. A man is on one board and another on a related board. One helps him get his bonus; he helps another get his bonus. There are some things I think should be more scrutinized.
The First Amendment question – I think that’s a fairly simple one for me. First Amendment, I think we make it really complicated, but it’s pretty simple. Congress should make no law that prohibits or prefers one religion or another. It’s basically two things, two prongs. No laws ever get created where one religion gets preference over another. Congress never creates a law where someone’s personal religious faith gets prohibited by the government. To me, that’s really simple. It’s not about people of faith being unable to participate in government; it’s that government can’t dictate to those who have faiths as to what they do and what they believe as long as it does not infringe or endanger someone.
On immigration – and I said this last night – I don’t know whether it came through – But part of the reason that Americans are just so filled with outrage is because they believe that their government is incompetent and unwilling to deal with what they perceive to be an issue that is affecting them. I don’t think it’s a completely xenophobic reaction to people coming here. There may be some of that, but I think a lot of it is that people are concerned and have little confidence in the government’s competence to deal with an issue. So when they see an immigration bill, they’re just not sure that they buy it because the credibility of government right now is not high. And there are a number of factors that have led to that.
Comprehensive immigration reform is needed. One of the differences I have with some of my Republican colleagues is I think there are some basic flaws with the bill as it is. But rather than just wholly say that it’s all terrible and we ought to throw it all out, let’s at least be grateful that they’ve worked on it and tried to create something with it.
The big flaw I see is that it doesn’t put the primary focus on a true, secure border, and it gives people status and then asks them to make their restitution and take the steps to earn that status, as opposed to saying, take the steps and then we’ll give you the status. I think those are the two fundamental things. To many Americans, that second part of it seems like amnesty. And the first part of it, if you don’t address it – It seems like nonsense to say, oh, we’re going to really deal with this, but the borders are still free, open and porous, and people can come and go as they wish.
Now, the point I made last night that I will close with is this – When we get on airplanes, we show photo ID; we put our toothpaste in little plastic bags; and we go through several layers of security as American citizens – law-abiding – to get on an airplane. It just seems insulting to a typical American that I’m going to have to take my shoes off and put them in the little plastic tub to get on an airplane, but if I cross an international border from another country, I basically can come without any documentation, slip in and stay here for years. So it’s that sense that maybe the people in Washington are asleep at the wheel that’s driving some of the tension. And it is intense. It’s amazing to me, quite frankly, that even in states where there’s not a huge immigrant population, this is a huge issue. It is a big issue.
Let me just conclude by saying thank you to all of you. I hope I have not completely worn you out. I know we’ve used every bit of our time and maybe some beyond. But I genuinely want to thank you – thoughtful questions and thorough ones. I hope I’ve given you at least – maybe not satisfactory but honest and candid answers. It’s been a real pleasure. I like this kind of forum. I wish we had more of it. Frankly, I wish the presidential debates were more like this where we have some genuine exchange of thoughtful ideas and give-and-take.
LUGO: Convince the others, Governor, we’ll be glad to host.
HUCKABEE: Let’s do it. Thank you very much.
DIONNE: Thank you.