Many conservatives have made a concerted effort to bury Mike Huckabee over his decision nine years ago to grant clemency to Maurice Clemmons, who became a cop killer and child rapist before being killed by police. Being a former Huck-basher turned Huck-backer, I watched the blog sniping of the past week with some sadness. My support of Huckabee isn’t exactly mainstream in the blogosphere. What I witnessed this past week was several people I respect making fools of themselves.
I see four errors made in the war on Huckabee:
1. The Rush to Judgment
Michelle Malkin wrote her first post on the killing before the bodies were even cold and got several facts wrong. The prosecutors did not object to the commutation. The only information Huckabee received was in favor of the commutation. As of this writing, Malkin has yet to correct her post. To rush into this with incomplete facts and never to bother to correct the record shows the kind of diligence we might expect from MSNBC.
While some are genuinely upset by the clemency, overall, the deaths of four police officers have taken a back seat to the desires of Huckabee’s political opponents to destroy his presidential chances in 2012. One would be hard-pressed to imagine any other former governor taking so much blame for having made a prisoner eligible for parole, the parole board then granting parole, a prosecutor’s incompetence leading to him walking despite a parole violation, and two judges in another state letting Clemmons out on bail despite him facing eight felony charges including child rape. The four police officers’ deaths should not have been used as a political prop in an intramural feud.
2. The Strategic Bungle
Many bloggers cite this as a “Willie Horton” moment for Huckabee, comparing it to the issue that hurt the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis. One blogger who fears that a Huckabee nomination will be forced on the GOP if people don’t become active has called this nonsense, saying, “Dukakis let Horton, a murderer sentenced to life without parole, out of prison for a weekend furlough. Horton never returned and months later committed another set of violent crimes.”
The political landscape has changed quite a bit since 1988. In 1992, Bill Clinton ran as a tough-on-crime Democrat and crime rates fell during the 1990s, which has led to less salience for the issue. In a January Pew survey, the issue of crime ranked 12th in importance among the general public.
Any ability this issue had to harm Huckabee is diminished by the decision to use this issue now. Had they let the issue lie dormant and not touched it, should Huckabee run in 2012, they could have brought this issue up for the first time at an opportune moment in the campaign. This was the lesson of the 2008 campaign, when embarrassing revelations about Obama’s ties to William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright came when Obama had plenty of time to recover and change the subject.
3. Dividing Conservatives
With opportunity knocking, and the right apparently hopelessly divided before the 2010 elections, the decision to gang up on a leading potential presidential candidate helped President Obama and the Democrats.
There’s nothing like the smell of conservative fratricide in the morning.
Huckabee has been clear that he’s not a surefire candidate for 2012. Besides, every potential presidential candidate has tread softly on the issue. Why? There’s no need to turn off potential supporters by ripping a guy they like. Those who went after Huckabee to derail his 2012 bid may find that they wasted time during key days in which Obamacare was making it through the Senate by attacking a guy who was going to continue his talk show anyway.
4. Lack of Realism and Context
The final error being made in the war on Huckabee is the lack of realism. What do Huckabee opponents think the policy ought to be on paroles and commutation? No paroles, no commutations? In his book, From Hope to Higher Ground, Huckabee wrote that, while governor of Arkansas, he ran into Republicans who wanted to do away with parole, but none who wanted to pay the extra taxes that would require.
Mitt Romney recently suggested the pardon power was only intended to provide executive discretion in the cases of prosecutorial misconduct or exonerating evidence, which are not addressed by the court system. This belief led Romney to twice deny a pardon to a decorated Iraqi war veteran who could not become a police officer because he’d been convicted of shooting another boy with a BB gun when he was thirteen years old.
The founders took a different view. Writing in Federalist 74, Alexander Hamilton declared, “The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.”
The lack of context in the study of Huckabee’s clemencies and pardons is a pivotal issue. The figure of 1,030 pardons and clemencies is often used to paint a picture of Governor Huckabee letting someone out of jail every three days. However, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette indicates only 163 of these actions led to actual reduction of sentences. The rest were issued to people who had left prison and who needed a pardon or commutation to be eligible for a job.
Further, we’re only hearing complaints about re-offenses from a handful of these actions. If one looks at his whole record of reducing sentences, Huckabee was right 90% of the time. If one throws in the post-release pardons everyone includes in criticizing Huckabee, he was right 99% of the time.
We don’t judge leaders against each other solely on the basis of clemencies. If one examines the record of every politician, mistakes are going to jump out against everyone. What’s worse — to grant clemency to a robber that becomes a murder or to appoint a soft-on-crime judge who for years fails to mete out appropriate sentences? For example, Mitt Romney appointed a judge who released a convicted killer who moved to Washington and killed again.
It’s true that lives were tragically lost and that Huckabee’s clemency played a role. When one is involved at high levels in the great actions of life — be it politics, the police, military, or even religion — actions have consequences that usually include the loss of large sums of money or the tragic loss of life. Consider that 241 U.S. Marines were killed in Lebanon after Reagan sent them into that country. Whether it’s Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, or Eisenhower, show me any great executive leader, and I’ll show you a man who made a mistake that led to a loss of life.
One of my great errors when thinking about Huckabee in 2008 was looking for the perfect candidate. That candidate doesn’t exist. Every potential candidate for 2012 has made mistakes. For Huckabee, some of these clemencies were in error. For Romney, the words “Romneycare” and TARP come to mind. For Sarah Palin, it was championing a well-intentioned but poorly written ethics law that forced her resignation this year. More mistakes will come out, and, if dark horses come to prominence, we’ll learn about their tragic mistakes also.
The voter’s task is not to find the perfect candidate, but to evaluate every candidate and ask questions about their successes and failures. It ought to be a thoughtful process. Instead, many longtime Huckabee opponents have invited us to make no comparison, ignore the facts, and simply make a gut decision.
Isn’t that what they accused Huckabee of?