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Morning Cheat Sheet

Huckabee and the Bush Legacy

Huckabee in Texas this week. (AP).

The rise of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in the Republican primary campaign raises an intriguing question: Whatever happened to "compassionate conservatism" anyway?

More than any other Republican candidate this year, Huckabee espouses the sort of philosophy that President Bush promoted when he first ran in 2000, the notion that conservatives could care about the needy and infirm even if their solutions were different than those of liberals. On the campaign trail, Huckabee has combined his conservative positions on social issues with a populist message on poverty.

And yet his emergence as a serious player in Iowa and perhaps elsewhere also serves as a reminder of how unusual that message has been in today's Republican contest. The overall tone of the debate so far has emphasized toughness in the face of enormous challenges -- who would be harder on Islamic terrorism, Iran, illegal immigration and profligate spending, who can run away faster from any aspect of his record that hints at weakness. There has been little if any serious discussion of the sort of issues that "compassionate conservatism" was meant to address.

The shape of the debate in both parties this year, in fact, underscores how each of the last two presidents has tried to redefine his party and, if the current campaign is any guide, how both of them have failed. Bill Clinton came to the presidency hoping to nudge the Democratic Party to the middle. He balanced the budget, overhauled welfare, pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement and employed a muscular foreign policy that included the use of force. Yet the Democrats this year, including his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), have been competing for the support of the antiwar base, rushing to denounce NAFTA and promising to expand the reach of government.

As a candidate in 2000, Bush touted "compassionate conservatism" as an implicit alternative to the harder-edged version of the 1990s personified by Newt Gingrich; at one point during the campaign, Bush rebuked congressional Republicans for trying to "balance their budget on the backs of the poor." As president, Bush inaugurated "faith-based" programs to steer government money to religious charities that help the poor, enacted a bipartisan program called No Child Left Behind aimed at improving education for disadvantaged and minority children; pushed for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and pumped far more money into fighting AIDS in Africa than Democrats ever did. Bush once described his philosophy as follows: "It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on responsibility and results." Yet Bush's attempts to move his party were, in a sense, hijacked along with the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The fight against al-Qaeda ultimately led to Guantanamo, waterboarding and Iraq. Certainly no one wanted terrorists treated with compassion. And fairly or not, Hurricane Katrina later called his administration's compassion into question.

Bush's former chief speechwriter and senior adviser, Michael Gerson, has written a new book trying to reenergize the cause, although he rebrands the Bush approach "heroic conservatism," a phrase he uses as the book's title. Gerson, who made the Darfur genocide and AIDS and malaria initiatives in Africa signature priorities during his time in the White House, gives no ground on Iraq in the book, passionately defending it as part of an effort to spread democracy, but argues for "a conservatism elevated by radical concern for human rights and dignity."

As he looks around the Republican field, Gerson sees little agreement these days, but he does seem taken with Huckabee. In his Washington Post op-ed column, Gerson wrote recently about a conversation he had with the former governor and Baptist preacher. "I'm a conservative," Huckabee told him. "But if that means I have to close my eyes to poverty and hunger, I'm not going to do that." To do so would mean he would "refuse a larger allegiance, to my own soul, and also standing before God." Gerson seemed impressed. "Perhaps it is time for religious conservatives to suspend cynical calculation and bank-shot endorsement ploys and reexamine another man from Hope," wrote Gerson, who was spotted following Huckabee around today along with other journalists.

Another former Bush adviser sees in Huckabee a little of the "compassionate conservative" agenda his boss promoted. "There's a guy who ran for president in 1999 who outlined a compassionate conservative philosophy," former White House counselor Dan Bartlett said in a speech in September. "I think the one who speaks and is clearest and most articulate on that is Mike Huckabee."

Huckabee has expressed this in part by disagreeing with Bush. During an MSNBC debate in October, he suggested he would not have vetoed a bipartisan bill to more than double the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, although he expressed sympathy for the president's position. "I'm not absolutely certain that that's going to be the right way because there are going to be so many issues we have to fight and the political loss of that is going to be enormous," he said.

Huckabee most exemplified his approach, though, in last month's CNN/YouTube debate, when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney attacked him for supporting legislation to allow the children of illegal immigrants the chance to earn the same state scholarships other students could. "In all due respect," Huckabee told Romney, "we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did. We're a better country than that."

Any suggestion of the rebirth of compassionate conservatism set off alarm bells in other parts of the party base, which sees the Bush approach as squishy abandonment of the principles of limited government. "Huckabee represents compassionate conservatism on steroids," Jonah Goldberg wrote on National Review Online. "A devout social conservative on issues such as abortion, school prayer, homosexuality and evolution, Huckabee's a populist on economics, a fad-follower on the environment and al all-around do-gooder who believes that the biblical obligation to do 'good works' extends to using government -- and your tax dollars -- to bring us closer to the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth." Phyllis Schafly, president of the Eagle Forum, explicitly linked him to Bush. "Some of the same evangelicals who sold us on George W. Bush as a 'compassionate conservative' are now trying to sell us on Mike Huckabee," she said.

But Huckabee may not be the best inheritor of the compassionate conservative mantle even for those who support it. As he has risen in the polls, his record has undergone new scrutiny and foes unearthed a 1992 survey form he filled out in which he said people with AIDS ought to be isolated from society. Asked about that on "Fox News Sunday" last weekend, he stood by the quote. And even some Bush advisers winced when they saw a quote resurrected this week from a 1998 speech, when Huckabee told a gathering of Southern Baptist preachers, "I hope we answer the alarm clock and take this nation back for Christ." Bush, for all his religiosity, would not couch his politics in such terms, and his people believe Huckabee's statement will turn off exactly the voters that "compassionate conservatism" was supposed to appeal to -- namely suburbanites who eschew polarizing politics.

Moreover, Huckabee may be the flavor of the week but he remains an underdog to win the nomination by any realistic measure. And so, in all likelihood, Bush, like Clinton, will watch another election go by with his party uninterested in following the direction its leader tried to set.

--Peter Baker

Posted at 11:03 AM ET on Dec 11, 2007  | Category:  Morning Cheat Sheet
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Anyone interested in what Huckabee is really like face to face should try this funny (but it actually happened) column:

Posted by: lanefiller | December 11, 2007 3:34 PM

Anyone interested in what Huckabee is really like face to face should try this funny (but it actually happened) column:

Posted by: lanefiller | December 11, 2007 3:32 PM

Do you believe Mike Huckabee's social conservative movement can make him the Republican Nominee of choice?


Posted by: jeffboste | December 11, 2007 2:32 PM

It's premature to make any final statements regarding the direction of the Presidential campaigns. The election cycle is still with the Political Party primaries that require each Republican and Democratic candidates to woo their party's base - it's normal to experience candidates working the edges, those passionate party members who come out in primary elections. Only when the general election is in full swing and the general populace, the majority of America will vote will the Presidential policies of each Party come out and then once elected, something perhaps between the general public and politicl party positions will arise.

Posted by: TabLUno | December 11, 2007 2:25 PM

Peter Baker:

Would it be too much to ask you to read the text of the actual bill - as voted on - that Huck supported? It was far broader than just allowing "the children of illegal immigrants the chance to earn the same state scholarships other students could". In fact, it gave them the same benefits as citizens:

How about asking Huck about the differences between what he said at the debate and what the bill said? Now, there would be some real reporting.

Posted by: LonewackoDotCom | December 11, 2007 2:01 PM

Compassion??? This SOB wanted to quarantine HIV positive american citizens in the 90's!!! We've had 7 plus years of compassion, i dont think the world can take any more.

Posted by: pgiaquinto | December 11, 2007 1:51 PM

I'm amazed at the 'hate' and name-calling in here. If you lack the understanding of the real issues, it's the best you have. Mike Huckabee IS the ONLY candidate on EITHER side that can bring this country together - IF he's given a fair chance....

Posted by: lgander | December 11, 2007 1:35 PM

Doesn't this make you wonder:

Don, could you comment to the voters of Iowa on this article. I tend to believe this. Wendy

Tue Dec 11 2007 10:27:53 ET


Democrat party officials are avoiding any and all criticism of Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee, insiders reveal.

The Democratic National Committee has told staffers to hold all fire, until he secures the party's nomination.

The directive has come down from the highest levels within the party, according to a top source.

Within the DNC, Huckabee is known as the "glass jaw -- and they're just waiting to break it."

In the last three weeks since Huckabee's surge kicked in, the DNC hasn't released a single press release criticizing his rising candidacy.

The last DNC press release critical of Huckabee appeared back on March 2nd.

[DNC Press Release Attack Summary:

Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) - 37% (99 press releases)
Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R-NY) - 28% (74)
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) - 24% (64)
Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN) - 8% (20)
Governor Mike Huckabee - 2% (4)]

In fact, as the story broke over the weekend that Huckabee said he wanted to isolate AIDS patients back in 1992, the DNC ignored the opportunity to slam the candidate from the left.

"He'll easily be their McGovern, an easy kill," mocked one senior Democrat operative Tuesday morning from Washington.

"His letting out murderers because they shout 'Jesus', his wanting to put 300,000 AIDS patients and Magic Johnson into isolation, ain't even scratching the surface of what we've got on him."

The discipline the Democrats have shown in not engaging Huckabee has earned the praise of one former Republican Party official:

"The Democrats are doing a much better job restraining themselves than the GOP did in 2003 when Howard Dean looked like he was on the brink of winning the nomination."

A close friend to Huckabee explains: "Look, Mike is Hillary Clinton's worst nightmare. They should be squirming."


Posted by: manwaringjd | December 11, 2007 1:33 PM

Huckabee seems less the compassionate conservative, which under Bush seems to be based on govt largess and centralization, and more in that of the GOP governors of the 1990s who eagerly embraced devolution to innovate and find ways to better serve the poor while doing it for less, such as welfare reform (the feds just let the states do it; they didn't come up with how). Do you have any idea what the epidemic in type-2 diabetes is costing state and local governments? Arkansas under Huckabee is the only state in the union to stem the tide. I want a president who will empower states and localities to innovate and fix problems, and that is something only Huckabee seems to be talking about.

Posted by: ccalvo | December 11, 2007 1:14 PM

What's more ineffective than an anti-Huck hack piece? NOTHING!

Posted by: FairMark | December 11, 2007 1:04 PM

Does Huckabee hear the same voice in his head as the voice that gives George Bush his divine direction? Do they sound the same? Huck is a hypocrite.

Posted by: notabeliever | December 11, 2007 1:03 PM

Bush doesn't have a legacy. He has brain damage from drugs and alcohol.

Posted by: rbe1 | December 11, 2007 1:00 PM

If Clapton is god then Huckabee is Elmer Gantry...or possibly Elmer Fudd.

Posted by: Jerryvov | December 11, 2007 12:55 PM

For people who don't know much about Huckabee, please don't rush to any conclusion before listening to his speeches. The "compassionate conservative" is simply a title someone else (media?) assigned to candidates. Huckabee is a populist. After 7 years, we know that Bush is in no way a populist. If you want a president who is for the people, not a party, Huckabee is the one you want to look into. In fact, hs is so "un-republican" in some regards that makes his primary a tougher fight (in GOP) than during the general election. He is one of a kind. Certain things he did as a governor in AR show the difference. Listen to his "vertical politics" vs "horizontal politics" speech. In short, we want a government that's fair, efficient, and for the people. A horizontal politics is where we are right now, GOP vs DEM fighting with each other and accomplishing nothing.

Posted by: SC_GOP | December 11, 2007 12:40 PM

Didn't we just watch this "compassionate conservative" movie with a different star for almost 8 years? Hard to believe the Republicans would have the nerve to try the exact same trick again to fool middle America. Huckabee has promoted as his platform a tax restructuring which would shift even more of the tax burden to the middle class and away from the richest 5 per cent of Americans. Doesn't sound very compassionate to me, except to Republican lobbyists and their backers.

Posted by: dyinglikeflies | December 11, 2007 11:40 AM

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