Yesterday's question of the day, at least over at CNN, involved Mike Huckabee's insistence on continuing his campaign for president in the face of overwhelming odds against him. One reporter indicated that Huckabee would need to win 93% of remaining Republican delegates in order to capture the nomination, something that will obviously not occur. The candidate himself did his best Yogi Berra impression, insisting that it's not over 'till it's over, but even he must know by now that the fat lady has sung, the audience has dispersed, the opera house has been shuttered, and the devastating reviews have been published in the morning trades.
It seems clear that the GOP leadership is none too happy with Huckabee's decision to stick around. His presence, in and of itself, does not embarrass the party's presumptive nominee, but every victory the former Arkansas governor racks up represents a further rebuke of John McCain's conservative credentials. This past Saturday was particularly difficult for McCain, as Huckabee beat him in both Louisiana and Kansas, and won a moral victory in Washington when party officials stopped the count after only 87% of the vote had been tallied, giving the frontrunner a tainted victory. The ham-handedness of this stunt further reinforced the sense that McCain remained so weak that only cheating could get him over the finish line.
Senator McCain already faces an uphill struggle in his bid for the White House. Of all the candidates in both parties, including those whose campaigns have since ended, he has the least credibility when painting himself as an agent of change. This would present a difficult situation for any Republican nominee this year, but it may prove fatal to the candidacy of a man who cannot even count on the enthusiastic support of the party's most faithful and energetic wing. Mike Huckabee, then, not only reminds movement conservatives that McCain is an ideological heretic, he also forces the Arizona senator to move farther to the right than is healthy once the general election campaign begins.
So why does Huckabee persist? He says that he believes in miracles, though winning over ninety percent of the remaining Republican delegates would appear to be a much taller order than, say, turning water into wine. This is not a baseball game, where it's always possible to score ten runs in the bottom of the ninth and take home the pennant. It is more like football—the two minute warning has come and gone, the other team has the ball, and the boys trail by three touchdowns. In short, Huckabee's prospects are so bleak that any divine intervention at this point would leave the almighty vulnerable to charges of election fraud.
To listen to the cable talking heads, the answer must involve either ideology or self-interest. Some suggest that Huckabee's devotion to the cause stems from a commitment to American theocracy and represents a long-term struggle unrelated to the outcome of the 2008 election. Others respond that Mike Huckabee really wants the vice presidential nomination, and hopes that continued success in the primaries and caucuses will convince McCain that be belongs on the ticket.
Neither of these explanations is persuasive. Though nobody doubts the depth or fundamentalism of Huckabee's faith, he has been far more dogmatically conservative on the campaign trail than he ever was in a decade as governor. He is no Pat Robertson, or even Sam Brownback. As for the veep nod, Huckabee has to realize, as I have mentioned in a previous post, that McCain could tap any number of conservative governors and former governors who would bring everything to the table that Huck does without the history of controversial statements. A Republican presidential nominee relying on the votes of moderates and independents does not want to spend October explaining away his running mate's suggestion that the Constitution should be amended to look more like the Bible.
I've never met Mike Huckabee; I've only seen him in person once. We have never engaged in a Vulcan mind meld or any other sort of extrasensory communion. Still, I do have a guess or two as to why Huckabee remains in the race.
First, never, ever, ever, underestimate the motivational power of ego. Ten years ago, nobody outside of Arkansas had ever heard of Mike Huckabee. Ten years hence, his name will stand with those of Morris Udall, Pierre du Pont, and Paul Tsongas, men who enjoyed a quarter hour of visibility as interesting, but ultimately unmemorable, presidential candidates. Right now, however, Huckabee is a star, appearing before adoring crowds, mixing it up with Tim Russert by day and Larry King by night, and seen plucking his guitar on television by more people than Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen combined. He sure looks like he's having the time of his life. Why would he be in any rush to return to Little Rock and spend his declining years pacing down President Clinton Boulevard, wondering why the higher power decided to shine its light on another, hopelessly flawed, son of Hope, Arkansas?
But it probably goes beyond mere American Idol-like exhibitionism. Leaving aside Ron Paul—as the Republican electorate has already done—Mike Huckabee is the last man standing as John McCain nears the GOP nomination. He will almost certainly never come this close to the White House again. A one-time lieutenant governor who ascended to the top job only because the incumbent was felled by scandal, Huckabee knows better than anyone the benefits of being in the right place at the right time. Because you never know.
Maybe there's a skeleton in the McCain closet jiggling the doorknob as we speak. Perhaps the senator, known for a short fuse, will endure a public meltdown and his very own Macaca moment. And of course, John McCain, as everyone knows, is on target to be the first septuagenarian presidential nominee, having reached an age where the body wears down, and, on occasion, shuts down with little advance warning. There are, to be blunt, occasional benefits to being the understudy.
It is entirely possible that Mike Huckabee will exit the presidential race tonight or tomorrow, especially if he loses badly in both the Virginia and Maryland primaries. But if he does drop out now, as opposed to last week, he will depart as the second place candidate in terms of delegates. In the unlikely event that the Republicans unexpectedly find themselves in the market for a standard bearer, he will have the strongest claim on that position.
Why, then, does Mike Huckabee persist in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds? The answer is very simple. Because he wants to be president.