The Interview: Transcript of Mike Huckabee's Conversation With NJ

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NJ You've put out two Christmas books in the past two years. The newest, a children's book, tells the story of you and your sister opening up your presents early. What inspired you to write them?

HUCKABEE The book that came out last year was very well-received, it was on the New York Times best-seller list for many weeks, and after the success of it, the publisher said, "Why don't we make a children's book using one of the stories from it?" So we did it. They hired an illustrator to do it who did a great job. We essentially wanted to make it very simple, with a moral, absolutely so simple even most members of Congress could read it, which is a pretty low threshold. We wanted to make sure 5 year olds could read it, so that was our target.



NJ Something that carried over from both books is that you're not good at sitting around, you're pretty impatient and like to be on the move. Is that so?

HUCKABEE That's a very accurate description. The quicker I can get somewhere, the better.

NJ Where are you headed now? Are you happy doing the book tour, radio show, and TV?

HUCKABEE I've enjoyed it a lot; it's been great fun. Both on television and radio, writing and speaking, all the things I'm doing right now are an incredible opportunity for me to speak on issues that are important to me, [to] have a part in the public discussion on issues of the day. It's really, in many ways, a perfect world.

NJ Is that a perfect world you're ready to mess with, or is this something you're going to be doing for a while?

HUCKABEE That's a question I've got to contemplate over the next few months, whether I want to keep [doing] what I'm doing, or whether it's time to jump back in. It's not a decision I have made, nor is it one I'll make very hastily. Having gone through the process before, and knowing just what it entails, it's not a decision I'll make lightly.

NJ You're building a house in Florida. How is the construction going? Do you plan to make it your primary residence?

HUCKABEE The house is going very well; it's pretty much on schedule, which for a construction project is all you can hope for. Florida actually already is our primary residence. We've been renting down there while our house is under construction. We have deep roots in Arkansas, and I'll always be a razorback. Two of our adult children live there, and we maintain our house there. Part of it is, I have to travel to New York every week from Thursday to Saturday, sometimes more, [and] it's a little easier to get there from Florida. We're anticipating a year from now that there may be some nonstop flights from Florida, which will make it a lot easier for travel. I'm taking it each day at a time. One of the things I've learned about life is, don't ever say never.

NJ What was it like to work with your daughter (Iowa field director Sarah Huckabee) on your campaign the last time around?

HUCKABEE Well, it was just an incredible thrill. To be able to spend the time with her, she was primarily doing a lot of field work and traveling with me a great deal. As a dad, it was one of the greatest joys of my life. I love my kids; I'm very close to all three of them. We have a very ideal relationship in terms of very open communication. All of my children are ideologically and politically in sync with me, they all have authentic Christian faith. It's something I'm very grateful for. When people ask me what my greatest accomplishment is, they usually expect me to talk about some political success that I've had or some legislative success. But I always tell them it was raising three children that turned out OK. I think the time we were able to spend together [on the campaign] and to watch her not as the little girl that sat in my lap that I would read stories to every night, but to watch her as an adult manage people older than her, to do it effectively and skillfully, it was one of the greatest thrills of my life. She is an incredible political operative; she's one of the best I know.

NJ From what she told National Journal, she wants to stay in Arkansas. She doesn't want to return to D.C. or go work in another state doing field operations. Do you think that's the right choice for her?

HUCKABEE I think it is. She worked in D.C. for a couple of years at the Education Department, and it was a great experience for her, she loved it. She worked with some terrific people there. She loved the culture of the city, like so many young people there, but she's married now, she's realizing D.C. is not exactly conducive to the settling down world of marriage and raising kids, all of those things. The stability and serenity of life she looks for in Little Rock, I think that's a sign in itself of her maturity.

NJ What do you think of the tax-cut agreement that President Obama and congressional Republicans reached earlier this week? Was it a fair compromise?

HUCKABEE I think it's the best anyone can hope for at this point. Obviously, it's a much better deal than letting there be complete limbo about the tax rates. It's good news for those who were wondering what the tax code was actually going to be. I wish it had been longer than two years. Politically, I was shocked it was going to be two not three, because it puts this whole thing in the very center, the bull's-eye of the 2012 presidential election. It doesn't have it resolved. But it does allow people to forecast for the next couple of years, and it'll make a big difference in people making some decisions about expansion and hiring. It means more money in the hands of the private sector and less in the hands of government. So those are all very, very good things.

The most bizarre part of the whole process was watching President Obama self-destruct at the podium yesterday. I was just stunned--I really couldn't believe that a man that was elected president was as amateurish as he was, and essentially launched from the podium at some of his own, taking aim and mowing down everybody in D.C. and walking away having not understood that he just lost a lot of people.  

NJ Do you think up to that point that Obama been acting responsibly but flew off the handle during the press conference? What did you think of the overall process--is that the type of D.C. you've been hoping to see in terms of working toward compromise, working toward getting things done? Was it a good sign of things to come, or was it the position he was forced to take?

HUCKABEE I don't think he enjoyed it at all--he made that clear--but it was the only deal in town. This is a president that has shown no appetite for compromise with Republicans, zero. During the health care debate, he only had that one public meeting with Republicans, where he kept rolling his eyes. [Rep.] Paul Ryan [R-Wis.] came in with his own plan he wanted to share. He told Ryan, "I'm not interested in hearing you read that."

People were asking him to compromise, and he came out and said: "Elections do have consequences, and I won't." I think he thought he'd been given a blank sheet of paper and told, "Do whatever you want." Elections don't give one unfettered access to changing the entire public sector; even 53 percent of the vote is not a mandate to change 100 percent of the American economy, and I don't think he understood that there were a significantly growing number of Americans who are dissatisfied with what he has attempted and what he's accomplished.

NJ Do you think he understands that now, or does he still have his head in the sand?

HUCKABEE I think to some degree he still has his head in the sand. I was one of the first Republicans after the election to come out and say, "Look, this is a historic moment; he's my president now, and I want him to be successful." But it didn't take long for me to realize that he's not this guy who presented himself as a centrist during the campaign, who wanted to bring people together and work to change the spirit of Washington.

He is a very ideologically left-of-center person who wants to take the country in a very dramatic direction, and I don't think that's what people wanted. And I think that's what we saw in the midterms, which were the most resounding spanking in the midterm elections since at least the 1994 election.

NJ Democrats fared poorly everywhere, but a lot of the Republican gains came in areas where you did well in the primaries in 2008, in the South and Appalachia, in more-conservative populist areas, the part of the country with a lot of blue-collar Reagan Democrats. If you did run for president, would you be one of the strongest candidates again in this area? And if you don't run who do you think would do well with this constituency and assume the Republican mantle this time around?

HUCKABEE If I did run, I do think I would have very significant strength going into it. The real question for me is, do I get through the nomination process? I feel better about getting through the general election if I were the nominee. I think I would be one of the best at drawing real contrasts with President Obama. A lot of the polls show I do exceptionally well, far better than any Republican candidate, with my support with women. I got a significant vote from African-Americans when I was governor--I got 28 percent of the African-American vote in my state, and very few Republicans are able to do that. I'm not suggesting I could do that in a national election, especially against Obama, but I would have a much better opportunity to bring in ethnic voters than most Republicans.
But the question is, is the Republican primary going to be about Obama or is it going to be a demolition derby in which the candidates tear each other apart? If the field runs against Obama and unites as a field against Obama, they win, and there's a good chance he'll be a one-term president. If it's like it was last time, where everyone's trying to out-conservative each other, play toward [advocacy organizations], it will be a disaster.

NJ Whom do you blame for the tone of the 2008 primary?

HUCKABEE I don't think it was any one person. It was a combination of some of the candidates, some of the consultants, and a media that thrives on conflict and the process rather than the policies. And part of my decision on whether to run hinges on whether I think we can have a legitimate, honest, responsible debate about issues, or will we spend all our time bickering about the process?

In the first 11 debates, nobody asked a question about education, and there was only one question about health care. In 11 debates. Basically, we argued the Iraq war, and with the exception of Ron Paul, who had a dissenting opinion on that, it would have been easier to say: "OK, here's the Republican position on Iraq, and we'll now give 30 seconds to Mr. Paul to present his views, and let's move on and talk about other things."

I was trying to talk about the economy when nobody else wanted to talk about it, I predicted in September 2007 [that] we were headed for some serious downturns, and I was pilloried for that in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. I was accused of everything from being a John Edwards populist to other crazy things.

It's very distasteful to go through that when we were trying to have an honest discussion about the issues, about health care, about our nation's crumbling infrastructure, about foreign policy. I was saying way back [that] the real threat was Pakistan. We needed to spend more time and energy on that. There were so many issues, but the questions were always the same. How much money have you raised? What's the size of your field staff in Iowa? And they'd take a decision from your past as an executive, take it out of context, it becomes the "gotcha" game. You made thousands of decisions as chief of staff of a state, so let's take two or three. That's what I've got to decide. Is it going to be that kind of primary again? It's absurd. And part of it is uncontrollable, in the blogosphere, on the Internet people can say anything. It can be completely wrong, grossly untrue, and it can be picked up by what should be responsible journalists, who shouldn't either entertain it or jump on it. Sometimes it's repeated as "Mike Huckabee today is saying he did not, in fact, run over a child's foot." It's just ridiculous.

You're running for president because you want to talk about very specific ideas that you think will change the country and the world. Instead, you're stuck answering things that are absolutely inane and have nothing to do with running the country.

NJ It sounds like you don't necessarily want to go through that again. Right after the election in 2008, while talking to a group of religious conservatives, you said that you would have won the primary if you'd had a little more infrastructure and a little more money early on. You said a few days ago that if you were jumping in, you would wait until later in the game this time around. Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Newt Gingrich have all been in the key early states for months now. Do you have any concern that you might be waiting too long? When is too late in terms of being able to put together the type of campaign you would need and the type of people you would want to be working with, who might be saying, "I love Mike Huckabee, but I need to commit to a campaign soon"?

HUCKABEE In a nation of 302 million people, it's a little absurd to think there's only 25 to 30 people who can actually help you get there. Most of the people who end up being president are taken there by people who've never done it before. Just remember, whether it's Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama, for that matter, whether there are a few lifers who have the right experience, a whole lot of people who become the major players nobody's ever heard of before, and sometimes the experienced people are losers. How many losing campaigns has Bob Shrum run? He has a record. But people keep hiring them. The two things I've got to work through: Is there a level of financial support that would give me more fuel than last time, and organizationally. I spent most of the last year campaigning for people in almost every state. My PAC was involved in 127 races, and we won 85 percent of them; it was a really good year. We have a lot of organizational infrastructure. I'm not as worried about that as I am the money. I do need to see [that] there would be a level of financial support that we would need to run a campaign and be truly competitive. Was financing a big issue for us four years ago? There's no doubt about that.

NJ Is there anybody who might run for president who would keep you out of the race, either because of that person's strength as a candidate or because you liked and respected him or her?

HUCKABEE If Jeb Bush wanted to jump in, I'd probably go help him. I love Jeb; I think he's brilliant. He was an excellent governor. I have the highest of admiration for him. He could certainly raise the money, and I think he'd clear the deck. I think there's a lot of very capable, qualified people, and some aren't the obvious ones. Nobody ever heard of me four years ago, and I ended up coming in second. Nobody expected that, and that's how things should be.

NJ Florida is considering resurrecting its early straw poll, possibly as early as in the late spring. Will you have made a decision by then, or would you sit that out? And might your Florida ties help you there?

HUCKABEE That seems awfully early to me. A lot of these polls are done as fundraisers, because they're good for the state party, not because they're good for the process. The Iowa straw poll is already really early. I'll tell you who it hurts the most. It hurts the people who are just getting started, candidates who don't yet have a strong organization, are still building, and don't have any name ID. It's not going to be very accurate. A candidate like me who has better name ID and is polling well might be in a better position, but it's not good for the process. It's utterly meaningless to have something that early. It would be a great fundraiser, but it gets a little out of control--it's not about electing a president, it's about using the election process.

NJ You stress fitness and have lost a lot of weight. You had a knee injury. How is it feeling, and how has it affected your fitness regime?

HUCKABEE I'm still having some issues with the knee, so I'm doing mostly the elliptical, the recumbent bike, and so on. It's not as thorough a workout as I've done. I'm not running marathons right now, unfortunately.

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Cameron Joseph is a staff reporter (politics) for National Journal.

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