Everything you need to know about the state of the Republican presidential race is explained by the schedules of the first two candidates to publicly dip their toes into the 2016 waters.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, like Willie Sutton going where the money is, was fundraising in Greenwich, Connecticut, last week.
By contrast, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who announced last week that he would no longer host his show on Fox while he considers a run for president, headed to Iowa to pray and solidify the social conservative base that made him the front-runner for the nomination in 2008.
Bush and Huckabee guarantee representation in the nomination race for the establishment and social-conservative wings of the Republican Party. The standard-bearers for the isolationist, pro- and anti-immigration, internationalist, and proto-Cheney wings have yet to make themselves known. It sometimes seems Republicans have fewer differences with Democrats than with one another. The apparent impossibility of straddling this intra-party divide goes a long way toward explaining why some have been calling flip-floppy Mitt Romney the indispensable man to unite Republicans in 2016.
Avoiding that rerun is one reason Bush has gotten such a hearty welcome by the establishment. In its autopsy of the 2012 debacle, the Republican National Committee decreed that nothing was more important than blocking future mishaps such as the debates that resembled an amateur version of “The Voice” but with performers including Herman Cain bleating “9-9-9” and deposed Speaker Newt Gingrich, now with a CNN contract, devoting more time to his plans for colonizing the moon than to his ideas for creating jobs.
But the party’s right wing will be heard this time, too. Huckabee will test the waters with a book tour for his latest vanity project, “God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy,” a title whose alliteration covers all his bases, except gravitas. This follows Huckabee’s earlier volume, “Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork: A 12-Stop Program to End Bad Habits and Begin a Healthy Lifestyle,” about a thin governor’s struggle to escape a 300-pound body.
He hardly needs a vehicle. A Baptist pastor with a Gomer Pyle face, he’s been a fixture on Fox News since 2008 and a favorite on the inspirational speaking circuit. That’s on top of two terms as governor of Arkansas, where he wanted to quarantine AIDS patients, cut spending for arts that were deemed to look like pornography, restricted abortion and pushed covenant marriages (he and his wife had one).
But Huckabee isn’t without vulnerabilities. He isn’t beloved by the small-government, low-tax economic conservative wing of his party. He raised taxes to improve schools, roads and health care in Arkansas. His understanding of the commandment to “love thy neighbor” inspired him to defend tuition breaks for undocumented immigrants so as “not to punish children for what their parents did.” He also supports the Common Core, which is anathema to many conservatives.
While in office, nine ethics complaints were filed against him. Huckabee set up a nonprofit entity so he could give paid speeches without having to disclose the donors. He also charged taxpayers for his dry cleaning, his wife’s pantyhose, a doghouse and meals at Taco Bell. He paid himself (as media consultant) and the family’s baby sitter out of campaign funds. In the tradition of the Clintons, the Huckabees tried to claim furniture from the governor’s mansion as their own. When that didn’t work, they set up a bridal registry for gifts for their new home.
He also had a Willie Horton problem. Huckabee granted more than 1,000 clemencies during 10 years in office, more than double the number granted by his three predecessors over 17 years, and more than in six neighboring states combined. That’s a lot of forgiveness and one of his reasons for not running in 2012 when he led the pack (other than that his life was “really, really wonderful”) was that all that Christian forgiveness resulted in a couple of his parolees committing heinous crimes.
Post governorship, Huckabee trimmed his positions to run to the right, toughening up on immigrants so much that he ended up with the endorsement of the Minuteman Project, the group in camouflage perched on plastic lawn chairs patrolling the Mexican border. He got square with economic conservatives, signing a pledge that he wouldn’t raise taxes after being hit hard by the Club for Growth as a “serial tax hiker.”
As Bush and Huckabee were staking out the ends of the Republican spectrum, a likely but unannounced candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, threatened to blot out the spotlight. Christie was part of a group hug in the skybox of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones that quickly went viral. You can either see the scene as the ultimate in authenticity even when it hurts (if you don’t have a team to hate, the Cowboys will do) or as political tone-deafness of the sort displayed by former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist when he let President Barack Obama get in shoulder-squeezing range. At the very least, it isn’t a good visual for Joe Six Pack to be sitting in the expensive seats with a billionaire rather than in the cheap ones with the real fans.
Christie is taking a victory lap from his year as chair of the Republican Governors Association, attending the inaugurations of the governors he helped elect and collecting some chit. Even as his orange be-sweatered belly bump played widely, the ever-blustery New Jersey governor doubled down on his love for Dallas, wondering aloud how he was going to get to the playoff game this week. For now, Christie (and Romney if he’s still playing) can afford to let the various strains of Christian Right candidates fight it out in Iowa (Rick Santorum anyone?) but he better be more worried about getting to the mansions of Greenwich than to a skybox in Green Bay.