It was damage control worthy of a presidential campaign. On Sunday morning, former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) told the audience of “Fox News Sunday” that he was “nowhere near ready” for a 2012 presidential run. Hours later, the Seattle Times reported that Maurice Clemmons, a suspect in the killing of four police officers in Washington state, had been granted clemency by then-Gov. Huckabee back in 2000. Shortly before midnight, Huckabee released a statement on the killings through his political PAC. On Monday morning, he took to Fox News Radio for yet another take on the killings in Washington.
[GOP1] Huckabee’s multiple answers and explanations for his clemency decision have not quelled a riot of anger against him rising up from blogs, talk radio, and some Republican strategists who’ve worked against him in the past. For 24 hours, conservatives debated Huckabee’s role in the Washington tragedy. Opponents of the governor-turned-TV-host piled on, offering it up as proof that he could never lead the party. Even some former campaign aides suggested that the Clemmons clemency, in the context of many similar decisions Huckabee made during his 12-year stint in the governor’s office, had seriously damaged his hope of grabbing the Republican presidential nomination.
“Huckabee was—and likely remains—a true believer in the concept of restorative justice,” wrote Joe Carter, a veteran of Huckabee’s 2008 campaign who is now web editor of the conservative magazine First Things. “Ironically, what makes Huckabee such an appealing Presidential candidate—his empathy for all people and genuine belief in the individual—is also the trait that will prevent him from ever reaching the White House.”
Talk radio hosts set the tone for Monday. On the first hour of his show, Rush Limbaugh referred to Clemmons as “Huckabee’s Willie Horton,” comparing him to the criminal furloughed by then-Gov. Mike Dukakis (D-Mass.), whose subsequent crimes became a drag on the Democrat’s presidential campaign. “This guy who killed four cops is on the streets,” said Limbaugh, “because nine years ago—it bugs me because people—politicians and intellectuals—can’t withstand protest and stick to principles, and let a guy like this out.”
Those arguments were replicated on conservative news sites, Twitter feeds, and on Huckabee’s own Facebook page. National Review, the conservative biweekly that endorsed Mitt Romney over Huckabee and the rest of the Republican field in 2008, put the clemency story on its front page all day, informing readers that the former governor had enabled a “Suspected Cop Killer.” WorldNetDaily, the widely read conservative site whose columnist Janet Porter was an influential early supporter of Huckabee, devoted its front page to an exhaustive story about Huckabee’s clemency. The American Spectator published multiple stories about Huckabee, including an irate attack from Quin Hillyer charging that “no amount of stagecraft featuring backlit crosses and folksy aphorisms should hide Huckabee’s culpability for such horrendous judgment.”
Huckabee’s Facebook thread on the story often got just as ugly. “As one who works in Law Enforcement, it gets old seeing criminal after criminal being released,” said one supporter. “Mike, I am deeply disappointed that you had anything to do with this sociopath being loose,” said another. Huckabee’s Wikipedia biography page was temporarily vandalized by a critic who screamed that Huckabee will “FOREVER BE KNOWN AS THE IDIOT WHO RELEASED THE COP KILLER MAURICE CLEMMONS.” RedState.com, the influential conservative group blog, was dotted with diaries and posts attacking Huckabee. “How many Willie Hortons can one man have?” RedState’s Erick Erickson asked TWI.
In one sense, the ferocity of Huckabee’s critics is out of sync with his overall popularity among Republicans. In a full year of polling, Huckabee has proven to be the most popular, most favorably-viewed Republican hopeful for 2012. His highest rating came just last week in a Rasmussen Reports survey that put his favorable rating at 58 percent, and had him trailing President Obama by only 4 points in a two-way match-up. Several other polls have suggested that Huckabee gets closer to Obama than any other potential nominee.
That popularity, however, provides one explanation for the wave of criticism. Long before Huckabee entered the 2008 primaries, he feuded with libertarian-leaning and fiscal conservative groups which took issue with his record in Arkansas, specifically the 21 tax increases enacted under his tenure. Huckabee’s resilience as a national Republican voice has been a source of irritation to groups like the Club for Growth, which Huckabee labeled the “Club for Greed.” (Huckabee’s decision not to endorse Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate in the NY-23 special election, was reportedly influenced by the Club’s own endorsement of Hoffman.)
“I think the news from Seattle is a huge blow to his presidential chances,” said David Keating, executive director of the Club for Growth. “It’s not just another crime, it’s unbelievable — when’s the last time four police officers were killed like this? It would be his Willie Horton, except much worse. Willie Horton was a general election issue. We’re talking about a GOP primary where voters will be sensitive to law and order issues.”
Huckabee’s clemencies became an issue, albeit not a defining one, during his brief surge in the 2008 primaries. In 1996, shortly after becoming governor, Huckabee announced his intention to grant clemency to Wayne DuMond, a convicted rapist and murder. A year after he was freed, DuMond assaulted and murdered a woman in Missouri. During the 2008 race, a mysterious group named Iowans for Some Semblance of Christian Decency pushed the DuMond story, and Mitt Romney’s campaign ran one ad in Iowa attacking Huckabee for granting “1,033 pardons and commutations, including 12 convicted murderers.” Such was the pace of the campaign, though, that the damage didn’t really last. In his campaign memoir, “Do the Right Thing,” Huckabee took many swings at Romney’s negative campaign, but did not mention the specifics of the Dumond attack. But for Huckabee’s opponents, it was a telling scandal that should have gotten more attention.
“It appeared that he was pardoning people who had friends who knew him or who’d had religious conversions in prison,” said Jon Henke, a Republican strategist who worked on Fred Thompson’s 2008 campaign. “It’s about Huckabee feeling his way to justice — not just criminal justice, because this pervades his thinking on a lot of policy. It’s illustrative of his bleeding heart conservatism. This issue sort of opens up discussion again on the thing everyone already objects to about him.”
Richard Viguerie, a longtime conservative strategist and Huckabee critic, echoed Henke’s analysis. “It kind of feeds into the image I have of Huckabee,” said Viguerie, a former member of the “Arlington Group” of conservative activists whom Huckabee courted, with mixed success, in 2008. “Huckabee is a Christian socialist. He’s got a good heart and all that, but he’s wrong on the important issues. He’s coming at them from a Christian perspective, trying to do the humanitarian thing, and it comes back to bite him.”
On Monday evening, as Huckabee headed onto “The O’Reilly Factor” for an interview, the attacks hadn’t slowed down. Michelle Malkin, the influential conservative blogger and columnist, was helping define the story with a frequently updated post harking back to all of Huckabee’s pardons. Huckabee’s responses so far, she argued, were making matters worse.
“Note the passive language and blame-shifting to prosecutors with no explicit mention of Huckabee’s role in granting clemency over the objections of prosecutors,” wrote Malkin. Helpfully, she gave readers “a few more background links to brush up on before Huckabee’s Fox News appearance tonight.”
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