Mike Huckabee starts his new book A Simple Government by talking about the family. Its health is not just a moral requirement for a stable society, he writes, but an economic one. He says there is a $300 billion “Dad deficit” because fathers do not care for their children. Two-thirds of the children who live in poverty wouldn’t be in poverty, he writes, if their parents were married. The message from the Republican Party lately has mostly been about reducing spending and cutting the budget. Huckabee wants that conversation expanded. “I wanted to stake out a position and say: ‘Please don’t tell me that social conservatism is irrelevant. It is connected to economic conservatism.’ “
With such a focus on the family, he was upset at the president’s decision on Wednesday not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court. He sees the decision as a shift to a broader support for gay marriage (which Obama still does not support). “He himself didn’t take this position when he ran for president,” Huckabee told me in an interview. “I think if he had, he wouldn’t be president. … I don’t think the president sits down and says. ‘Hmm, let’s destroy the family.’ I mean, I don’t think that. I think he thinks he’s either got to do this for political reasons or maybe he really believes it—I don’t know. But I do know there is a definite economic impact of the breakup of families in this country,” he says. “One decision isn’t going to destroy the family, the family’s pretty strong. It may destroy him, may destroy his credibility, may destroy his campaign and candidacy and ultimately his term in office.”
In polls of possible Republican presidential candidates, Huckabee is tied for the lead. In a recent Gallup poll his standing has been improving. But unlike Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty, who are neck deep in the presidential swim but just won’t admit it, Huckabee appears at times to be on dry land clutching his towel. “Someone said, ‘He acts like he doesn’t want to run,’ ” he said. “I would put it this way: I don’t want to lose.”
On the one hand Huckabee has embarked on a 41-city tour to sell his book. Such a tour is a prerequisite for any presidential campaign. He also sounds like a candidate when he says things like this: “Social conservatives are economic conservatives. Not all economic conservatives would call themselves social conservatives. Those of us who can deliver the whole package are the most conservative because we don’t limit it to the very rigid economic issues.” Later he boasts about governors as the only kinds of politicians with complete experience. And lest that be interpreted as a boost for one of the other governors running, Huckabee says he doesn’t yet see anyone in the race who sufficiently fits the bill.
On the other hand, he frets about the costs of running for office. He’s been through it before, he says, and he knows how brutal it is. He wants to know before he starts that he can win, and that there is a market for his ideas.
He doesn’t just want nods of assent. He wants money. “If I run, I walk away from a pretty good income, so I don’t want to walk away any sooner than I have to,” he says. “I don’t have a lot of reserve built up. Most of my life has been in public service. … One thing I committed to myself, my wife, and to God is if I’m going to do this, I’m hopefully going to be in a position that I’m not going to be completely destitute by the end of it. I have no idea what to do if I get sick or retire or have a disability.”
Even the jokes he makes hint at his financial concerns. Asked if he’s ever talked to the Koch brothers, who have long funded conservative causes, he says no—but “if they want to call and help set up a fundraising network, I’d like that.” Later, as he flips easily through his iPhone 4, he jokes that he could turn his affection for Apple products into an ad campaign that might fund his run. “Once you go Mac you never go back,” he says, as if trying out for the role.
For someone so concerned about money, as Politico’s Jonathan Martin has pointed out, Huckabee has not done the early work necessary to build a fundraising network. (That would limit his personal income because it would mean he’d have to step down from his job at Fox News.) His plan seems to be simple: If you publish it, they will come. “I want to see if these ideas resonate with people. If you don’t have ideas that resonate with people that you’re going to ask to give money to your campaign, and vote for you, maybe it’s not your time.”
This “listening to the people” theme brings him back to the deficiencies of the current occupant of the White House. The president’s decision on DOMA was the latest in what Huckabee sees as a refusal to listen to voters. “What does the president believe he knows that the citizens of these states don’t?” he asked, referring to the 33 states in which voters have voted not to support same sex marriage. It’s a common Republican complaint about the president’s hubris. Later, Huckabee praised fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton for listening to the people and the opposition.
Huckabee wasn’t completely anti-Obama. He made a full defense of Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign. “I think her approach is the right one. She is not advocating that the government take over our dinner plates. She’s been criticized unfairly by fellow conservatives out of a reflex rather than thoughtful expression.” The program, he says, “is exactly what Republicans say they believe. You put a focus on personal responsibility, you encourage people to make good choices, and you encourage them for doing so.”
Huckabee is a defender of the first lady’s campaign in part because he pushed his own anti-obesity campaign as governor. He famously lost 100 pounds before his last run. He’s a little less trim than he was during the 2008 primaries—perhaps another sign that his body language is leaning against a run.
Watch John Dickerson’s interview with Mike Huckabee.