On March 2, 2016, Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service presented “Reflections on Running,” a discussion with Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas and former Republican two-time presidential candidate, moderated by GU Politics, Executive Director, Mo Elleithee.
Discussion Transcribed by Angela Hart
What is it like being a Republican Governor in a deeply blue state?
Well, first of all, I am glad we are going to talk about some of those campaigns because the most recent one is not the most pleasurable one. (Laughter) I’m really glad we are going to talk about some successful ones from the past. Let me say, “thanks to all of you.” I realize nobody has to be here tonight and I am mindful of the fact that you are here on your own volition. Frankly, I think you all should get extra credit in whatever class of your choice. (Laughter) If I were running Georgetown, that is what would happen, but I am not so I cannot make that happen for you but I am grateful that you have come. I hope we have a terrific exchange and I know you are going to get a chance to pepper me with questions and I look forward to that, I truly do.
Such a beautiful campus; it is an extraordinary place and the history here is just amazing so I consider it an incredible honor to be here on this campus with you and I am especially glad that you filled up those seats because when they told me that I was going to be at Georgetown, I thought, “Okay, all the conservative students at Georgetown will be there; a small table at the waffle house – should not be crowded – so this is terrific.
To address the question, it was a tough environment to be only the fourth Republican elected in a hundred and fifty years to a statewide office in Arkansas. When I became Lieutenant Governor the mix in the house was eighty-nine Democrats to eleven Republicans. In the Senate, it was thirty-one Democrats to four Republicans, which was more lopsided than any state in the country. More than Massachusetts, Vermont, Oregon, Maine, no state in the country had more Democrats, fewer Republicans, than Arkansas, which is not what most people perceived because they just assumed that all the states in the south had kind of drifted toward being reliably Republican. Being elected in that environment, I know what it is like to be on the endangered species list and it can be very, very, difficult. In fact, when I was elected Lieutenant Governor, my door, the door to my office, at the Capitol, was nailed shut and that was sort of my welcome, “Well, we cannot keep you from being elected, but here you go, pal.” Webb Hubbell admitted to John Fund at The Wall Street Journal at the time that he had ordered it. Now Webb was working at The White House for the Clintons at that time and he called back to the Secretary of State and said, “Fix this guy,” so they did. Now, I do not hold any bitterness about it, both of them went to prison, I did not. (Laughter) Not for nailing the door shut. But I just want to give you an understanding, it was a very vicious environment and all the furniture was taken out of the office. My office stayed nailed shut for fifty-nine days, fifty-nine days. I worked off the night shift table in a former vault until, finally, there was enough public pressure that that was changed. But it was not a welcoming, friendly, environment.
I am used to some of the harshest kind of political shenanigans that people have experienced and, quite frankly, it is the best thing that ever could have ever happened to me. It made me a better public servant, it gave me a much better understanding of what it feels like to sort of be shunned and shut out and, in the long term, politically, it is the best thing that could have happened to me because as the only Republican in the state Capitol, what happened was the overreaching attitude that so many of the elected officials had towards me was such a turnoff to the population that I won in a special election by just a handful of votes in 1993. I had to run for re-election in 1994 and won in a landslide with the largest number of votes in the history of the state by a Republican and I think in large measure it was because people appreciated that I did not go and try to tear the door down and I did not act in the same way in which I was welcomed. It was, frankly, beneficial. For those of you who are biblical students, remember the story of Joseph in the Old Testament, his brother sold him off into slavery, dumped him into a pit. Later, that was the genesis of his being able to save his people. He made a statement and said, “What you intended for harm turned out for good.” My experience has been, sometimes, we think of the worse things to happen to us can actually turn out to be the best things; it is a matter of waiting until the final story is told.
Before you entered public life in politics, you were a minister, you were involved in Christian broadcasting, that is a very different path. Why did you sort of decide to enter this one?
I was always involved in student government in high school and college. My first career was not that of ministry; it was advertising in radio and television, which a lot of people do not know. I think if you ever hear the narrative of me, even to this day, I was being interviewed yesterday on a television show, I cannot even remember which one it was, and they said, “Now, Governor Huckabee, as a minister,” and I am thinking, “It has been thirty years since I have been.” But it is this sort of label, which I am happy to wear, but for twelve years I was a pastor of a church. I honestly think that was a large part of what compelled me to get into politics.
Here is what I do not think people understand. They assume if you are a pastor of a church, you really sort of live in this very compartmentalized little world and you are isolated from reality. Frankly, nobody is more steeped in reality than the pastor of a large congregation for this reason. Every social pathology that exists in our culture today is an experience that the pastor can put a name and a face to, everything. You want to talk about elderly people who are having to cut their medicine in half because they cannot afford to take the full dose; want to talk about what it is like for a middle-age couple to have to decide to take the life support off their relative when their life functions have ceased; or, what about parents whose son is killed in a motorcycle accident or when they are dealing with a fourteen year old girl who is pregnant or a drug-addicted twenty-one year old son. There is nothing that exists in our culture that we do not see up close and personal. You see people at their best, you see them at their worst, you see every aspect of human life in a way nobody else really does. It is because of that school, I call it my graduate school of humanity; that made me realize that a lot of the people who are dealing with public policy to supposedly fix problems did not even understand the nature of the problems they were trying to fix. As a father with three young children, I finally came to the conclusion that some of us need to ‘get out of the stands and get down to the field and get in the game’ and that we should not leave it to the “professional politicians” because many of them were so removed and isolated from the realities of everyday life, they no longer understood. That really was a part of that compelling force that got me into it.
Let us fast forward a little bit – you are Governor, the third longest-serving Governor in Arkansas history – in January of 2007, you announced that you would seek the presidency of the United States. Why? How did you come to that decision? Who did you talk to? Who did you consult? How do you build a campaign? What were the decision points to making that fairly big jump?
Well, I had been one of the longest-serving Governors not only in my state but in the country. I became increasingly disenchanted with what I saw was a gridlocked Washington. I dealt in the reality of a state in which I went into a very difficult, hostile, political environment but was able to effectively and successfully govern for ten and a half years despite the fact that I never had a legislature that was favorable. But I never got less than ninety percent of our legislative package passed. I learned how to govern, quite frankly. I became the Chairman of the National Governors Association elected by my peers; it gave me an opportunity to be involved in things at the national level. I was very involved in innovative health care policy as we did some things in my home state that were pretty avant-garde when it comes to changing the paradigm of health care from just one of just trying to pay for sick people to actually try to prevent and cure diseases because, frankly, the way we are doing it now, we will never be able to catch it, never. We rebuilt the roads, reformed the tax system, brought industry in; there was a pragmatic side of me that felt that governing needed to be about solutions not just about ideology. Let me say that nobody is more ideological than I am. I would venture to say that you will not find anybody who is more conservatively wired if you will. I can articulate and defend those positions but I have always said, “I do not think Republicans are right all the time. I do not think Democrats are wrong all the time; especially, if they are wrong most of the time.” (Laughter) But government is not about getting your way all the time. It is about looking at a problem, accepting the fact that if the voters sent me, they also sent these other people, and I have got to figure out, “How do you solve the problems you face given the makeup of the people that you are going to have to govern with?” which means that if you really want to understand governing, I think one of the things is to look to some of the greatest political scientists of the last one hundred years. The Rolling Stones, for one thing, whose great 1970’s anthem said, “You can’t always get what you want.” (Laughter) Honestly, if people understood that, whether it was in marriage, business, or politics, a lot more would get done.
How did you decide, “This is what I want to do”?
Well, certainly, I talked with my family, my wife, and my children. I talked to people that I served with; not only Republicans, but Democrats. Clearly, I could not have gotten anything done without Democrats. I talked to a lot of the people I had served with in legislatures. I talked to my pastor, my spiritual leader, my confidant. I talked to friends who were other governors, who knew me both from a personal and professional standpoint. A lot of it was, I asked myself, “Why not?” In many ways it was a little intimidating to think that I would ever do something as bold and audacious as run for president. I know you do not know my biography but you have to understand I grew up dirt poor in South Arkansas. I am the first male in my entire family lineage that ever graduated from high school plus went to college. My father never finished high school; his father did not, and his father, and his father, and his father, did not. Nobody else, except for me, ever finished high school, no one. My mother grew up in a house in the Depression. She was the oldest of seven kids, grew up in a house that did not have floors, just dirt. No electricity, no plumbing. I am a generation away from an abject poverty you could ever hear described in the United States so it was a little intimidating to think that a kid of my pedigree, my background, not an Ivy League kid, would be so bold as to say, “I am going to run for President of the United States.” But I think what I loved about America is that this is still a country where a kid like me could do it. I did not win but I came in second to McCain in the Republican Primary when I was out spent ten-to-one by all my opponents so I am not ashamed of the fact that I gave it my best shot not once but twice.
To read more, download the complete transcript here.