Why Mike Huckabee may come to regret his weird comments about Obama’s roots.

Mike Huckabee

Of all the candidates to dish theories about President Obama’s roots, you’d think Mike Huckabee would be the most careful. As a former Baptist minister, he has had to endure all kinds of weird questions about how his religion controls him and his hidden motives. Just before the Iowa caucuses in 2008, for example, he was questioned about subliminal cross imagery in one of his advertisements, on the theory that he was trying to send secret signals to evangelical voters. (As it was an ad about Christmas, the Christian signals were hardly secret.)

In a recent session with reporters, Huckabee said such questions—which treated him like some kind of oddity in part to excite the passions of viewers—were one of the reasons he could skip early debates without harming his potential candidacy. The inquiries are a bother, and they’re not important to voters.

Yet this week and in his new book, Huckabee has been offering his theories on how Obama’s roots explain his foreign policy. He got the facts wrong at first, saying Obama was raised in Kenya. * In correcting himself, however, he did not modify two theories he does believe: That Obama’s Kenyan father and grandfather influenced his views about the British, and that Obama is not your standard American because he spent four years in Indonesia as a child. “Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary Clubs, not madrassas,” Huckabee said.

This is a dog whistle, by which I mean it gets all of us in the political press yapping. That term is more commonly used to explain a phrase or quote that has special meaning to a specific group—in this case, conservatives who are obsessed with Obama’s otherness. Ugh, you’re saying. Are we really going to have this debate every week until the election? Maybe. That was the plan of Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist in 2008, and Republicans will look to feed off this energy, too. In a just world, using threads from Obama’s biography to define him as un-American would itself be considered un-American. He can be criticized plenty on the merits of his presidency. The last two years have provided a flowing basket of opportunities, and the next two will provide even more. 

But this isn’t a just world, and the instinct to ignore this dog whistle risks the chance the idea will float out there, unaddressed. So: David Weigel is right; Huckabee is not a birther. He doesn’t think Obama was born anywhere other than Hawaii. He also defended Obama when conservatives tried to define Obama by his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, saying that he’d hate to be condemned by every word that was uttered in his presence. Still, what Huckabee believes based on his book and recent interviews is more sweeping than birtherism: Obama is actively anti-American, because he is “molded out of a very different experience.”

Huckabee is reaching back 40 years into Obama’s biography to draw conclusions. Imagine if voters used that same intellectual dot-connector to draw conclusions about the beliefs Huckabee holds today and affirms each day in prayer and each Sunday at church. If a voter is supposed to believe that Obama is captive to the imagined ideas of a father he knew for only a month of his life, then, presumably, the same voter should believe that Huckabee can be equally captive to some imagined tenets of Christianity.

Huckabee has taken several recent trips to Israel. Does he want people drawing direct lines between his foreign policy and every passage of the Book of Revelation? This applies to all GOP candidates who would seek to define Obama wholly by his foreign connections. Should Mitt Romney be judged by every rule and law of the Mormon Church? Is Newt Gingrich irrevocably driven by the same impulses that ended his two marriages?

We are all the product of our life experiences. But any presidential candidate who doesn’t want to be defined by the most attenuated interpretation of the influences contained in his biography should probably keep his theories about his opponents a little more closely tied to the here-and-now.

Correction, March 4, 2011:The article originally and incorrectly said that Huckabee stated that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. That is not what Huckabee said. He said Obama was raised there. (Return to the corrected sentence.)