Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a once—and likely future—GOP presidential candidate, takes the seat reserved for him at a table of Washington-based political reporters, asks about the quality of the hotel coffee, and abruptly shuts down the small talk. "Anyway," he says, "I just got back from Israel a week ago "¦ "
And so began a thinly disguised effort to impress the pundits with his grasp of foreign policy. In a 45-minute session Monday morning, Huckabee said:
- It was his third trip to Israel this year, one of countless visits he has made since the 1970s, when he first toured the Holy Land as a 17-year-old student.
- Unlike President Obama, he draws no moral equivalence between the "good guys" (Israel) and "bad guys" (Palestinians).
- Ground troops should be an option in the fight against ISIS. "A bully never picks on somebody when he thinks the other guy's going to whip his butt."
He spoke, too, of Turkey and Iran and Iraq—all unprompted and extraordinary, because Huckabee, more than virtually any GOP presidential contender, has built a reputation as an economic populist. Two thoughts crossed my mind. First, this guy is boning up; he's spending time with briefing books and neoconservative thinkers. Second, the focus of presidential contenders has shifted, if only for a period of time, from the aching needs at home to threats abroad.
Why else would Huckabee argue that the best training to be commander in chief is to serve first as a governor—as he did for more than 10 years in Arkansas?
"I don't think the person in the chief-executive's role is necessarily the encyclopedia for naming all the names of the foreign leaders and being able to find the capitals on the map, as much as it is to process information. Is he willing to take the analyses of the people who've spent their entire lives becoming experts and "¦ then having good judgment?"
Huckabee sees himself as that guy. "I've always believed that the most dangerous person in the world," he said, "is the one who doesn't know what he doesn't know."
I asked whether he has what it takes to be commander in chief. "I didn't say I did," he demurred.
You ran in 2008, I reminded Huckabee, so you must think you're made of the right stuff. He chuckled, "Let me be very clear: I have not made a decision about whether I'm going to run or not. But if you want to know, could a person like me—could I be that person, did I think I could be in 2008? The answer is yes, in large measure because I think it comes down to, do you have an understanding for the world and the dangers we face? Do you have a capacity as an executive to look at the whole battlefield and to see all the issues in play and how they integrate with each other? Or do you focus on one or two things that are of interest to you."
"And one thing I learned in 10 and a half years of being a governor," Huckabee said, "is you don't just enjoy the issues that are most endearing to you."
For that reason, if he doesn't run, Huckabee said he would support a governor or ex-governor. He added mischievously that any officeholder seeking the presidency should resign his or her seat before starting a campaign—telegraphing a line of attack against his potential GOP presidential rivals.
A gifted communicator, Huckabee didn't hesitate when asked, hypothetically, to describe his rationale for the presidency. "I know how to govern," he said, pointing to what he calls a record of bipartisan achievement in Arkansas. In fact, his record is rather mixed.
Still, he's not a creature of Washington and he is a favorite of social conservatives, a preacher-turned-politician who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 before running out of steam. Should he choose to run in 2016, Huckabee said the path would be easier. He is better-known, battle tested, and already drawing the interest of major donors.
"I would certainly be in a different place than I was eight years ago," he said. One of the places Huckabee has been, of course, is Israel ("having lost track of how many times I've been back there, three this year alone!"), which tells you where he thinks presidential politics is going.