Back in 2004, before he ran for president and before he became the Senator with the most conservative voting record, John McCain the Maverick had a firm hold in the hearts of liberals as the Republican they most loved. McCain, the popular Republican war hero, represented the hope that America wasn't quite as conservative as it seemed in his frequent criticisms of the Bush administration. But McCain was a fickle lover. No sooner had he slapped around Donald Rumsfeld then he was out on the campaign trail hugging President Bush. Well, all that ambiguity is over now. McCain faced a conservative challenger in the Republican primary for his Senate seat last year and had to run to the right. But that's ok, liberals have a new guy to represent conservative clear-headedness: Mike Huckabee.
The Huckabee of 2011 is the McCain of 2004. They managed to seize the title of "The One Republican Guy Liberals Kind of Like" in remarkably similar steps.
Step 1: Portray Liberal Stands on Controversial Issues as Common Sense
McCain: After working with liberal Sen. Russ Feingold, push through campaign finance reform in 2002, McCain confronted Defense Secretary Rumsfeld--one of the most hated public figures among liberals--over the Iraq war during an October 2003 senate hearing, saying, "This is the first time that I have seen a parallel to Vietnam ... in terms of information that the administration is putting out versus the actual situation on the ground. ... I'm not saying the situation in Iraq now is as bad as Vietnam. But we have a problem... and we should face up to it and tell the American people about it." He also made immigration a pet issue, criticizing Bush for moving too slow on reform. In the summer of the 2004 campaign, he flirted with being John Kerry's running mate.
Huckabee: Way back in 2008, when Huckabee began getting attention for being a compassionate conservative, he said Bush's foreign policy was an "arrogant bunker mentality" that was "counterproductive at home and abroad." His campaign referred to him as "a man who reminds you of the guy you work with, not the guy who laid you off." Liberals love the little guy. Last fall, as Tea Party protests swept the country and capitvated media imagination, Huckabee took opposing stands. Last August, he told NPR that he supports the DREAM Act, which would give a path to citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants who go to college or join the military. He explains his position by saying, he'd "rather have that kid [become] a neurosurgeon than a tomato picker." In October, he confronted notorious flame-thrower Ann Coulter over her assertion that liberals can't be Christians.
Step 2: Be a Favored Guest on a Hip Show
McCain: He appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart 15 times before his presidential bid. Stewart even let the senator sit in his chair! Largely, he got such frequent invitations because he'd come on and say things critical of the war, such as this clip from 2007.
Huckabee: He has made nice with Stewart, too, going on The Daily Show last December to urge Republicans to pass a bill to provide health care to 9/11 first responders.
But his closest late-night ally has been Stephen Colbert, who coined the "Colbert Bump" after Huckabee's rose in the 2008 primary polls following his first appearance on the Colbert Report. Last week, the two reminisced.
Step 3: Demonstrate Pop Culture Awareness
McCain: He has appeared on Saturday Night Live multiple times, showing a willingness to mock himself and sing Barbara Streisand songs.
Huckabee: Like many an aging Boomer, he plays guitar and name checks old bands, as when he told MTV "Most of the bands I'd really like to open up for are out of business... If you could help my band open up for the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, I'd probably come out and endorse MTV as the official channel of America." Watch him jam here:
Step 4: Throw Red Meat to the Base
McCain: Since a politician can't win Republican votes by appealing to liberals all of the time, McCain made a point of taking more traditionally conservative positions from time to time. At the height of the 2004 campaign, and after he had established himself as a critic of the Iraq War, he made a speech which called the Iraq war "noble, achievable and necessary," and said Bush's efforts "deserve not only support, but admiration. He has led with great moral clarity and resolve." Eventually, after flirting with the Kerry campaign, McCain endorsed Bush.
Huckabee: Last month, he tore into Obama for not defending the Defense of Marriage Act--which defines marriage as between a man and a woman--in court. And this week he's made false claims that Obama was raised in Kenya, echoing a common charge among Republicans who refuse to believe the President was born in America.
So, what's next? Huckabee will likely run for president and shift rightward. Liberals will be disappointed, then move on to find another nice Republican. Scott Brown is looking like a pretty attractive candidate these days.