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Huckabee Gives His Take on Conservatism, Faith and Iraq

October 5, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the next of our conversations with Democratic and Republican presidential nomination candidates who are competing in the primary contests. Tonight, Margaret Warner talks with Republican Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas.

MARGARET WARNER: Mike Huckabee, thank you for joining us.

FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R), Arkansas: It’s a pleasure.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you have won all kinds of accolades as a governor, small g, as a manager. You were once named by Time magazine as one of the five top five governors in the country. Do you think that’s what the American voters are looking for in a president?

MIKE HUCKABEE: I think they want somebody who really believes in something and can stand by it and articulate it, but they do want somebody who is a competent manager, a pragmatic person who understands that you’re not elected to be an ideologue and stand on the steps of the Capitol and just make speeches. They want you to be able to solve real problems that touch them every day.

So being a governor is a great advantage. You’ve run a government. You’ve balanced a budget. You’ve had to do things for which there were measurable results. People could see: Were schools better? Were roads better? Was health care better? Did we bring more jobs than we lost? Those are measurable things that I think best prepare someone to be president.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’ve described yourself as a paradoxical or the paradoxical Republican. What do you mean by that?

MIKE HUCKABEE: I’m not an establishment Republican. There are so many people who think of Republican as people who are properly pedigreed within a political system and they can talk about, “Yes, my grandfather, he was elected to” — and then they fill in the blank, and, “My dad, he was very close to Eisenhower and to Nixon, and I’ve come along.”

Well, you know, my dad for a fireman for the city of Hope, Arkansas, worked as a mechanic on his days off. I was the first male in my family lineage to even graduate high school. I know what it’s like to be the first sort of in the whole line to break the cycle of poverty, and go on to high school, college, and end up becoming a governor.

But I think my experience really is far more common to the average American than those folks who have all the right things on their resume. America needs a president who understands what struggle is, because most Americans experience it.

MARGARET WARNER: But why is that paradoxical for a Republican?

MIKE HUCKABEE: The perception of many people in America is that a Republican is a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street. And, in some cases, it’s probably true, that the Republican tends to be more connected to people of great wealth.

Now, I think that that’s not always the case. I think rank-and-file Republicans are small-business owners. They’re factory workers. They’re moms and sometimes single moms and housewives. They’re all kinds of people.

But there is this perception that Republican equals privilege. And it certainly isn’t the case.

I think another thing that I would say kind of makes me the paradoxical Republican, I talk about things I don’t ever hear Republicans talk about, my passion for music and art in school, which I think is critically important to the survival of our country, health care, the environment.

I think we ought to be conservationists. This is a world in which we’re not the owners. We’re simply the temporary inhabitants. We’re the guest. We ought to act like that. So there are some things that I believe as Republicans we ought to be leading on, and we’re not. And so in some of those ways I’m somewhat paradoxical.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that the current administration hasn’t led on those?

MIKE HUCKABEE: I think there’s been some challenges, and it’s not that they don’t care. I think particularly the president is a man of incredible integrity. I like him personally; I think he’s genuine. I think he’s also a man of deep conviction, and I respect that very much.

But there’s also a difference between, let’s say, the way he grew up and the way that a guy like me grew up. And it does shape us, not just in how we would govern, but it shapes us in how we understand the impact of our decisions that reach out there and touch the ordinary family, who’s struggling not so much with where they’re going to summer, but whether or not they’re going to be able to pay the rent at the first of the month.

Huckabee as a Baptist preacher

Mike Huckabee
Former Arkansas Republican Governor
The pastorate for me was somewhat of a detour, the unexpected path, but it also was the most wonderful and greatest pilgrimage that I've been on.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you spent a good part of your life, actually, as a preacher. You led Baptist congregations in Arkansas. How has that pastoral experience and background shaped both your approach to issues and also how you view the presidency?

MIKE HUCKABEE: During my tenure as governor, I was often asked, you know, was this sort of an unusual preparation? I said, no, it was a wonderful preparation. And here's why.

There's no social pathology that exists in this country that I couldn't put a name and a face to. I've dealt with people of every level of life, from the cradle to the grave, and everything in between. And because of that, I know that there is an enormous level of human hurt, even deep beneath the surface, of virtually everybody out there we see.

I know that there are real challenges that people face. And I've seen them, again, not from reading about them, but from actually seeing them up close and personal. Whether it's a 14-year-old girl who's pregnant and hasn't told her parents, whether it's an elderly couple who are faced with cutting their medicine in half and having enough food to eat, or that young couple just married and overwhelmed with debt because they made some really bad decisions, and now it's really putting a strain on their marriage, again, there's nothing out there that I haven't seen up close and personal.

And, therefore, when I try to think in terms of public policy, I remind myself: There are very human people out there that are going to be affected by this. How will they be affected? And what can we do to make sure that it's a positive, not a negative impact?

MARGARET WARNER: And what about the actually religious dimension? First of all, what drew you to the religious life? I gather you didn't -- as you said, your father was a fireman. I gather they weren't particularly religious or observant.

MIKE HUCKABEE: You know, for me, it was a matter that, as a teenager, my faith deepened as a young person around the age of 15, and I really became increasingly concerned that our whole world was really being challenged to sort of decide where it's going to go.

I mean, I was a teenager in the '60s. So there was a lot of confusion about what was right and what was wrong. I think it deepened me in my own personal faith. I didn't expect, actually, to be a pastor. I was headed toward being in communications and being maybe in some type of religious broadcasting, because I'd worked in radio since my teenage years and actually worked my way and paid my way through college doing that.

The pastorate for me was somewhat of a detour, the unexpected path, but it also was the most wonderful and greatest pilgrimage that I've been on. And, again, I think it uniquely prepared me to understand more than most people ever can, just the whole, I think, frailty of humanity.

Christian conservative values

Mike Huckabee
Former Arkansas Republican Governor
I'd certainly like to see somebody like me get the nomination. And it's not that I'm anti-something. I'm for recognizing the intrinsic worth and value of every human being.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you also have very deeply held views about abortion, about same-sex marriage, premarital sex. A group of conservative leaders, religiously conservative leaders, announced last weekend that they simply will not support the Republican nominee if that nominee isn't anti-abortion.

And I'm just wondering, less as a political figure, if you can do this, and more as a religious conservative yourself, do you agree with that? Do you agree with what James Dobson, for instance, wrote, that to support for -- for a Christian conservative to support someone who, say, is pro-choice would just be an unacceptable compromise of your principles?

MIKE HUCKABEE: I think if a person says, "My primary motivation for being involved or interested in politics would be the issues of the sanctity of life or maybe the sacred nature of traditional marriage, or any of those issues," then, yes, it sure has to matter. If it suddenly doesn't matter, it would be like the NRA saying, "Well, historically, guns have been our issue, but this year, global warming is something we're going to be really be focused on."

MARGARET WARNER: But that isn't what they're -- they're putting the Republican Party on notice.

MIKE HUCKABEE: Every special interest group puts their party on notice. The unions put the Democrats on notice. They do it every time they have an election. Minorities tend to put the Democrats on notice. Wall Street puts Republicans sometimes on notice.

So it's not uncommon. Any interest group -- and, again, I could point to, whether it's PETA or, you know,, they put candidates on notice because that's what they're there for.

MARGARET WARNER: But as a religious conservative, would you have a hard time voting for someone if he or she were not pro-life, anti-abortion?

MIKE HUCKABEE: I'd certainly like to see somebody like me get the nomination. And it's not that I'm anti-something. I'm for recognizing the intrinsic worth and value of every human being.

I think that's a key element of what makes us a unique civilization and what truly does mark America as a nation that has a special place in the world, where we treat each individual as having that worth and value, that's intrinsic to them. It is not because of who their parents are and it's not because of their last name or their blood line is.

It's because, whether it's a 12-year-old boy lost in the woods, whether it's three hikers that have gotten, you know, separated out in Mount Hood, or coal miners in Huntington, Utah, we care about them because they represent us.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you have made your mark, of course, in domestic policy, but what do you say to voters out there who express concern that, in the post-9/11 world, we can't afford a president who doesn't have experience in foreign affairs and/or defense?

MIKE HUCKABEE: Franklin Roosevelt didn't have experience in foreign affairs. Neither did Ronald Reagan. Many of our great presidents who dealt with the greatest challenges of history, the same thing could have been said of them.

What they did have: They had convictions. They had creativity. They had leadership skills. You don't elect a president to know everything. You elect a president to make tough decisions in a crisis.

Frankly, from having been a governor, I can tell you that every day you have a lot of things that are planned and on your schedule. You don't get paid to do those. You get paid for the exceptions. You get paid for the things that nobody could have imagined happening, whether it's a school shooting, or a tornado, or a hurricane.

The next step in Iraq, healthcare

Mike Huckabee
Former Arkansas Republican Governor
We can't afford to lose in Iraq. And I know a lot of people that are just frustrated and they're tired of it. We all are. But war is about will.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let's take the front-and-center issue, Iraq. Now, you have said you support the surge; you think it's working. How would a Huckabee policy in Iraq going forward be different from Bush administration policy?

MIKE HUCKABEE: I would make sure that we really listen to our military leaders about what they need to get this job finished and get it done quickly and get us out of there so that, hopefully, we don't stay any longer than we have to. But I would make sure that we stayed until we had victory and that we had it with honor.

We can't afford to lose in Iraq. And I know a lot of people that are just frustrated and they're tired of it. We all are. But war is about will. Whoever gives up loses. And if we lose, two things happen. We embolden our enemy. We give them a sense that they have outlasted us, they have, with a ragtag approach, they have been able to beat the big guys. And the second thing, we break the spirit of our own military in a way that will take generations to rebuild and recover.

MARGARET WARNER: You gave a speech a couple of weeks ago in which you said that America's problem -- that wasn't your word -- but as a superpower in the world was that -- had been undercut, I'm going to quote you here, "by the manner in which we handle that power."


MARGARET WARNER: What did you mean by that?

MIKE HUCKABEE: There's a great scene in "Schindler's List" you may remember. The commandant is talking about that he has the power to just basically take a life at will, and they were target shooting almost at some of the prisoners. It was a horrible scene. And Oskar Schindler steps in and he says, "You know what real power is? Real power is when you have every right to kill, but you don't."

And the next day, when the commandant had an opportunity to pull the trigger on someone, he purposely pulled back and said, "That's power, isn't it?" It was as if Oskar Schindler had reminded him that the power to restrain is as powerful sometimes as the power to do.

My point is this: If America is the superpower, it has to be careful that it uses that power very carefully and effectively. Margaret, there was a time in this world when people around the world wanted to be like the Americans. They emulated us; they admired us.

Right now, they hate us. And we've got to fix that. We don't fix that by becoming a weaker nation. I want us to be the strongest nation economically, militarily, diplomatically, every way in which we can be measured, but I want us to also use our strength and power to encourage other countries to be their best because, with a rising tide, all boats float higher.

MARGARET WARNER: Let's take an issue that has been splitting the Republican Party, immigration. Now, when you were governor, you actually advocated making the children of illegal immigrants eligible for state tuition and state scholarships, yet you didn't support the Bush administration bill creating guest-worker programs and so on.


MARGARET WARNER: Where are you on immigration?

MIKE HUCKABEE: Well, I think the failure of the government has been they haven't sealed the border. It's harder for me to get on an airplane in my hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, than it is for an illegal to cross the border. That's what makes Americans mad.

They're not mad at immigrants. They understand immigrants want to come here for the same reason their ancestors did. But here's where the failure is: You can't allow people to break the law and then have no consequence.

My reasons for supporting the idea that, if a student had been in our schools, had performed academically and behaved, and had done everything that we asked of one of the students in our school to qualify for a scholarship, then it's in our best interest to let the student apply for the scholarship because they would -- part of the provision was they'd have to apply for citizenship.

But here's the other part. You don't punish the child for the parents having broken the law. We don't do that. We don't say, "OK, your parents broke a law, so we're going to punish you for it." I just don't understand why anybody would think that that's a good thing to do.

MARGARET WARNER: That's not a popular position among a lot of Republicans.

MIKE HUCKABEE: No, it isn't. It's not very popular at all, and I took a lot of heat for it, and still do. I still get criticized.

But I'm a person who believes in strong border security. I don't believe in amnesty. But neither do I believe in, again, doing something that is ultimately harmful to a person who didn't break the law. You know, a kid who comes here who's 3 years old, I don't think he had a whole lot of choice about saying, "Hey, Dad, let's break the law. Let's cross the border." He didn't even know where he was going. So let's not punish him.

MARGARET WARNER: Health care, now here's another issue where the president and some Republican senators have been at odds, and that's over this S-CHIP program. The president just vetoed it, which would have extended health care, health insurance, to underinsured kids. You pushed -- and were very proud of -- a program, ARKids, in Arkansas that extended health insurance to 70,000 kids. If you'd been president today, would you have vetoed that bill?

MIKE HUCKABEE: I think the president let that thing get way out of hand. It became a political issue. And a lot of Americans thought that the veto was that he was against coverage for kids.

He was proposing additional coverage under S-CHIP. What he didn't propose was the expansion that would take it to even couples making $80,000 a year would be moved from private insurance that they already had to government insurance. I think the president's concern -- and it's an understandable one -- is that, if you move more people to a government system away from a private-based system, you're only exacerbating what is the underlying problem.

Democrats have to be given credit. They did a great job of politically making this about kids when it was a little more complicated than that.

Huckabee's 110-lb. weight loss

Mike Huckabee
Former Arkansas Republican Governor
[I]f this southern fried boy who ate everything in the world battered, fried, and gravied before he ate it, if I can make a change in my lifestyle, I think it's proof positive that it's possible.

MARGARET WARNER: I have to ask you the question everyone will be dying to hear your answer to, and that is your incredible weight loss. You lost 110 pounds...


MARGARET WARNER: ... while you were a governor. You became a marathon runner. Did it change you on a personal level?

MIKE HUCKABEE: Oh, most certainly. Not only did I have more stamina, I'm less expensive to my employer. I certainly have, you know, more energy. And I have a longer life span. I'm going to outlive a lot of those people that thought they were going to be rid of me pretty soon.

But I'll tell you another way it changed me. It reminded me that the real challenge in this country is not a health care crisis. It's a health crisis.

We have a system that's upside down. It's based on waiting until people are really, really catastrophically ill, and then we intervene. What we need to do is to put the focus on prevention.

We don't cover $150 visits to a podiatrist, but we'll cover a $30,000 foot amputation. I mean, there's so many things in our system that have to be rerouted, because right now we spend just over 75 percent of all our health care dollars on chronic disease.

So we don't have a health care crisis. We've got health care. We have a health crisis, and that's what's driving the health care crisis.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, as governor, you actually got the state government in the business of encouraging healthy behaviors.


MARGARET WARNER: Is that a model for what you would do as president?

MIKE HUCKABEE: Absolutely. You have to create incentives...

MARGARET WARNER: Give an example.

MIKE HUCKABEE: Ending the co-patient deductibles for mammography, colonoscopy, and prostate cancer exams. You want the screenings. You want people to get screened, early detection, early treatment.

We did weight loss programs. We covered those. Because we found that, even at the point of bariatric surgery, which is pretty expensive, most people can't afford it -- it scared me to death -- but, you know, a lot of people, they're morbidly obese. They need it. There's a 60 percent to 80 percent financial return in terms of fewer health care costs after the surgery than there were with a person who has a situation of being morbidly obese.

The same thing happens when you get people off tobacco. We paid for the smoking cessation programs. We gave employees up to $500 discount on their health insurance if they would do a health risk assessment and not smoke.

So what we found was, if we want to drive better behavior and lower health care cost, you've got to create some incentives. It's not enough to just say, "You ought to." Say, "If you do, here are the benefits that you get, not just the employer, the employee gets."

MARGARET WARNER: So when you talk about this on the campaign trail -- and I gather you do quite a bit, your own personal experience -- what do you think it's saying to voters that's important to them in choosing a president?

MIKE HUCKABEE: That I'm trying to find different ways of solving this problem other than just raising taxes and spending money and that I've been there myself. I'm not asking them to do something I haven't done.

You know, I think the first quality of a leader is leaders never ask of others what they're unwilling to do themselves. I had to make a complete lifestyle change. And, frankly, if this southern fried boy who ate everything in the world battered, fried, and gravied before he ate it, if I can make a change in my lifestyle, I think it's proof positive that it's possible.

And if we don't do it, we don't just lose the economics of this nation -- and we do, it will bankrupt us -- but we're now seeing the first generation of young Americans who are being born who are expected to live a shorter lifespan than their parents and grandparents, largely because of obesity and all the resultant health problems from it.

MARGARET WARNER: So the campaign trail is a lot about food, whether it's pie bakeoffs or corn cookouts. How do you stay slim?

MIKE HUCKABEE: I, first of all, don't have time to eat a lot of the times. But a lot of it is that you can politely say, "Oh, that looks very nice, but I think I'm going to have to pass."

MARGARET WARNER: I guess they understand. Mike Huckabee, thank you so much.

MIKE HUCKABEE: Thank you, Margaret.

JIM LEHRER: For more about Mike Huckabee, you can visit our Vote 2008 Web site at All of our candidate interviews and campaign updates are available there. And in addition, on our Insider Forum, Democratic and Republican strategists will answer your questions on the new fundraising numbers and the presidential campaign so far.