Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee speaks at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2008.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee speaks at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2008. Susan Walsh/AP
A lot of Republicans were surprised last weekend to discover that Maurice Clemmons, the thug who killed four Washington state police officers, had been granted clemency from a long Arkansas prison sentence by leading GOP presidential prospect (and former Arkansas governor) Mike Huckabee. As has been widely reported, Huckabee commuted Maurice Clemmons's prison sentence in 2000, ten years after he was given a 108-year term for robbery and other crimes. He also was charged with possessing a handgun on school property.
The case was quickly dubbed "Huckabee's Willie Horton," after the murderer whose pardon by Michael Dukakis may have cost the former Massachusetts governor the presidency in 1988. Huckabee released a prepared statement via his website Sunday night, spreading blame for Maurice Clemmons by claiming that the criminal-justice systems in Washington and Arkansas had both failed. Two days later, he tried to limit the damage saying that he "accepted full responsibility" for the clemency, but adding that "if the same file were presented to me today, I would have likely made the same decision."
The response from Huckabee's political allies in Arkansas has been mixed.
Jason Tolbert, a budding Republican blogger and ardent Huckabee supporter, resigned his volunteer position as Arkansas coordinator for Huckabee's political-action committee, Huck PAC, on Tuesday. "As most could imagine, the recent news of the last two days along with the response did play a role in this decision but was not the sole factor," Tolbert said in a statement on his blog, The Tolbert Report.
State Sen. Gilbert Baker campaigned for Huckabee during the 2008 presidential campaign. Now the GOP frontrunner in the race for Blanche Lincoln's U.S. Senate seat, Baker told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Wednesday that he is still a "strong" Huckabee supporter and would be inclined to support Huckabee should he run for president in 2012.
Arkansas Republican-party officials would not comment on how the week's news might impact Huckabee's future, but one Arkansas GOP political operative who has supported Huckabee in the past said Thursday that "anyone with half a brain knows what this means for Huckabee's political career — his goose is either cooked or packed in dry ice."
The ramifications of Huckabee's clemency policy on his presidential prospects may go well beyond Clemmons and the four police officers he is alleged to have killed in a coffee shop near Tacoma. During his more than ten years as governor, Huckabee issued clemencies to 1,033 convicted criminals, more than double the 507 clemencies issued in 17 years by his three predecessors (including Bill Clinton's two stints).
Clemmons's case wasn't the first time Huckabee encountered trouble after extending compassion to criminals who, once freed from prison, returned to their old ways. Eugene Fields, a four-time driving-while-intoxicated offender, had his six-year sentence commuted by Huckabee not long after Fields's wife made large donations to the Republican party of Arkansas. Fields later was arrested twice more for DWI. (I wrote a comprehensive piece about Fields for NRO two years ago.)
And then there was convicted rapist Wayne Dumond, who, less than a year after being let out of prison on parole, raped and killed a Missouri woman. Huckabee's involvement in that case became a flashpoint during the 2008 presidential campaign.
But the real threat to Huckabee's future career will come if the clemency controversy prompts a serious reexamination of the gubernatorial record of this Southern Baptist minister–turned-politician. Republicans eager to retake the White House in 2012 may choose to bypass him, based on a record of governance that at times mirrors the carelessness displayed in his mishandled clemencies. Prompted by the Washington tragedy, some of those who thought they knew the Other Man from Hope may be asking: Who is Mike Huckabee?
Huckabee has parlayed his social agenda (opposition to abortion, gay marriage, and gun control) and his language of faith and morality into a package with great appeal to elements of the religious Right. Indeed, Huckabee won the presidential straw poll at last September's Values Voters Summit in Washington. His record as governor, however, was hardly conservative by conventional measurements: Arkansas state spending during Huckabee's tenure soared by more than $5 billion, and taxes rose by about a half-billion dollars.
Arkansas Republicans expected Huckabee to roll back Clinton-era spending programs. Instead, he embraced Hillary Clinton's children's agenda — winning legislative approval for ARKids First, which extended free health care to children of the working poor and well into the middle class. Huckabee even went one better: He fought for a measure that would have granted Arkansas university scholarships to children of illegal aliens. He also won plaudits from teachers' unions for his consistent opposition to school choice and voucher programs.
When he wrote a largely ignored book about his presidential campaign, he saved his harshest rhetoric for conservatives who dared to question his tax-and-spend record as governor. Huckabee said the "real threat" to the GOP is what he labeled "faux cons" — "libertarians masked as conservatives." And who did he say represents the "faux cons"? The Club for Growth, which he calls the "Club for Greed," and the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
Yet his frequent and questionable grants of clemency may be what finally trips him up. Prisoners seeking clemency during Huckabee's tenure learned the importance of highlighting religious conversions as the centerpiece of their appeals. In seeking clemency, Clemmons wrote to Huckabee: "I have never done anything good for God, but I've prayed for him to grant me in his compassion the grace to make a start. Now, I'm humbly appealing to you for a brand-new start."
The famously forgiving Huckabee may soon be looking for his own brand-new start.