Mike Huckabee’s decision marks the end of compassionate conservatism.

Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee has decided what sort of campaign the 2012 Republican presidential candidates are going to have. Voters with well-worn copies of Joel Osteen and Tim LaHaye books on their nightstands, or degrees from Patrick Henry College on their ego walls, no longer have a favorite son. Voters who Tivo Rick Santelli’s CNBC hits or tote “Who Is John Galt?” signs at Tea Parties no longer have a candidate they truly hate or fear. The men (and one or two women) who are actually running for president have just been spared a bitter opponent, a man who can hardly type the name “Mitt Romney” without flinging his keyboard out the window.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Saturday was a good night for Mitt Romney. A year from now, in fact, we may look back on May 14 as the night Tim Pawlenty won the GOP presidential nomination.

In 2008, Huckabee clobbered Romney in Iowa, after being outspent 20-1, largely because church leaders in the state climbed over one another to endorse and help out this ordained Southern Baptist minister. But Huckabee’s support and organization in some other states was negligible. “Both of his New Hampshire supporters must be very disappointed,” joked Fergus Cullen, the former GOP chairman in that state, who ran the party in the 2008 primary cycle.

Huckabee’s support in Iowa this year has been in the high teens or mid-20s in polls. It’s now free to scatter. Ryan Rhodes, a key leader of Iowa’s Tea Party movement, told me on Sunday that Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain had the most to gain. Pawlenty starts off in a better position than either. He’s a Baptist who happened to be married by a minister who went on to lead the National Association of Evangelicals. He’s already hired one of the men who pulled off Huckabee’s 2008 win. With Huckabee in the race, it might have been tough for Pawlenty to pry evangelicals away. That’s not a problem any more.

But there’s more to the GOP primary than Iowa. There are debates, and news cycles, and heated tiffs between candidates. Huckabee’s not going to be part of this. Forget about the wild world of evangelical politics and whether the next president thinks the age of planet Earth is better determined from radiometric dating than from Bible-reading. * Without Huckabee, this race actually shifts further to the right.

That’s because Huckabee is (or was) the last Republican with real national political pull who didn’t believe in economic conservative orthodoxy. He believes in an activist government. He favored a smoking ban in Arkansas, and for a while he favored expanding it to all 50 states. He’s OK with Michelle Obama running an anti-obesity campaign from the White House. (Bachmann said the first lady was implementing a “nanny state,” and most conservative voters agree with her.)

If that seems like a minor spat, it wasn’t—it comes out of Huckabee’s philosophy about what government should do. In December 2007 and January 2008, he feuded with Rush Limbaugh, who said Huckabee was simply “not a conservative” given his views of what government was good for. In March 2008, after it was extra-clear that he wouldn’t be the party’s nominee, Huckabee started spelling this out.

“The greatest threat to classic Republicanism is not liberalism,” he told reporter Will Mari. “It’s this new brand of libertarianism, which is social liberalism and economic conservatism, but it’s a heartless, callous, soulless type of economic conservatism because it says, ‘Look, we want to cut taxes and eliminate government. If it means that elderly people don’t get their Medicare drugs, so be it. If it means little kids go without education and health care, so be it.’ “

Huckabee was mocking what orthodox conservatives think. They struggle mightily to explain that this is good government, good economics, not heartless—teach a man to fish, give him a tax cut, and send him on his way. Liberals say it’s heartless. And Huckabee sided with the liberals on this one. That’s what made Rush so angry.

“That might be a, quote, ‘pure economic conservative message,’ but it’s not an American message,” he told Mari. “It doesn’t fly. People aren’t going to buy that, because that’s not the way we are as a people. That’s not historic Republicanism. Historic Republicanism does not hate government; it’s just there to be as little of it as there can be. But they also recognize that government has to be paid for.”

This wasn’t just one vinegary interview conducted as the party called for him to leave the race. This was a salvo in a war between Huckabee and conservatives personified by the Club for Growth, which had attacked him relentlessly over his Arkansas record. In his memoir Do the Right Thing, published right after the November election, Huckabee warned that libertarians were hijacking the GOP. “The libertarian faux-cons have helped to drive the party even further away from its base of the hard-working middle class,” he wrote.

And he kept on saying that, even and especially when libertarians, via the Tea Party movement, took a leading role in the GOP. He skipped the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2010 because it had become “increasingly more libertarian and less Republican over the last years.”

What about Huckabee and the Tea Party, anyway? He never headlined a Tea Party event, but he praised the movement. Two months ago, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll revealed that a plurality of voters who identified with the Tea Party would vote for him. But the Tea Party is vast; it contains multitudes. Huckabee’s Tea Party fans aren’t libertarians. They’re the people who chanted, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” They’re the ones who are making life trickier for Rep. Paul Ryan right now because they want to bring spending under control but don’t want to cut entitlements. And now they don’t have a candidate.

They might not have had a candidate even if Huckabee had run. In the last campaign’s debates, when asked about tax policy, he’d effectively punt and remind people that he wanted to demolish the IRS and institute a national consumption tax. At the first South Carolina debate, Huckabee implied that he’d only raised taxes because Democrats and voters had forced him to.

Things had changed since then. Huckabee was more popular. His party had drifted further from him on economics. There was a way for Huckabee to challenge that. He didn’t take it. He listened to his heart.

Correction, May 17, 2011: This article originally implied that the age of Earth could be ascertained using carbon dating. It is radiometric dating that reveals the age of the planet. (Return to the corrected sentence.)