Mike Huckabee’s Cynical War on Cynicism

DES MOINES, Iowa – Today, Mike Huckabee essentially declared a war on cynicism. But depending on where you stand, it might be the most cynical campaign move so far.

In a packed press room at the Des Moines Marriott, Huckabee announced that he had decided at the last minute not to air an attack ad on Mitt Romney. See, over the past few days, he’s become “very concerned” about the tone of the debate in Iowa. “My ten-and-a-half-year record can’t be summed up in a 30-second commercial,” he said, referring to ads Romney has been airing attacking Huckabee’s record as governor of Arkansas. His campaign had been planning to air a response ad today, but within the last hour decided to pull it. 

He then proceeded to play the ad for the roomful of reporters and dozens of cameras.

How now? The reason he had to show it now, he claimed, was that otherwise the press folk wouldn’t believe the ad existed.

Why, then, was he standing there surrounded by placards criticizing Romney and McCain? Because the plan had been to hold a press conference attacking his rivals. But his conscience got the better of him. Should he withdraw his comments about Romney being dishonest? “I said what I said, and I spoke the truth.” But doesn’t this just mean the ad will be shown on every cable station in the country, now that he’s shown it to the entire American press corps? Huckabee insisted that was not his intention. 

“There’s going to be cynicism,” he said, maybe in response to the smirks, raised eyebrows, and incredulous laughs circulating the room. But from now on, he claims he is renouncing negative campaigning. It’s a “huge gamble on my part,” he said, adding that “if it turns out [Romney] pulls away, I’ll be the last guy to do this.”

By now the needle on your BS meter has probably broken. But here’s one reason to believe him – or at least to hear him out. When they started playing the ad on a big screen, there wasn’t any audio at first. “Maybe that’s why they’re not airing it,” someone quipped. They tried rewinding it and playing it again, but no dice. After that, Huckabee just let it run. The sound kicked in toward the end – he was going after Romney on the usual issues of abortion, guns, and taxes – but no one in the room could say they had seen the whole ad.

If the point was to get the ad out without actually airing it – to attack without actually attacking – then Huckabee or one of his people would have made sure the cameras got the whole thing. But afterwards, reporters were complaining to one of his aides, Charmaine Yoest, that they didn’t get any audio. Yoest made it clear they wouldn’t be showing it again. Judging from that, it sounds like Huckabee might – might – have been sincere.

What this means for the campaign is anyone’s guess. Just when he had appeared to reinvent himself as ” the New Huck ,” prickly and hyper-responsive, he’s receded back into nice guy territory. Now, if he loses, he can call himself a martyr for the cause of positive campaigning. If he wins, he will go into the general election less bruised than otherwise. Worst case scenario, he goes back into attack mode and undermines his own crusade. Until then, whether or not you believe him is, according to Huckabee, a litmus test for your own cynicism.