The tragic murders of four policeman in Washington State, quickly turned into a political story when it was discovered that former governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee had previously commuted the sentence of the gunman, making him eligible for parole.
Normally, I wouldn’t have much to say on such story. But because I have some familiarity with the backstory—I worked for a brief time for the Huckabee campaign—and because it has implications for the role of religion in politics, I thought it might be worth sharing my perspective.
Reflections on a politician by former campaign staffers should always be taken cum grano salis. This is no exception. While I’m still a fan of the governor I don’t believe he—nor anyone else from the 2008 primary season (from Palin to Romney to Giuliani to Paul)—has any chance of ever becoming President. Because of this, I don’t feel the need to either defend or condemn him. While the tragic chain of events that were set in place by his signing commutations are not entirely—or even primarily—the fault of the governor, he must bear a sufficient measure of responsibility.
What follows may appear to be sympathetic, but I hope that it is simply a realistic assessment.
In the fall of 2007 I was hired by the Huckabee for President campaign to be the Director of Rapid Response. After arriving in Little Rock, though, I learned that the Director of Research had fallen ill and that since there was a general overlap in the two areas, I would also be taking over his duties as well.
Research on a campaign generally entails fact-checking the claims made in political ads and speeches and preparing any necessary data for debates. In many campaigns, though, it also includes performing opposition research on one’s opponents.
Because the governor did not believe in digging up dirt on the other movie downloads Republican challengers, my primary task was to preemptively collect opposition research on him and his family. Fortunately, my predecessor had already prepared thousands of pages of press clippings and briefing sheets on every aspect of the governor’s past record that would come under scrutiny.
Initially, I was a bit uncomfortable with this role. But, to my surprise, no one on the campaign ever asked me to spin the press. My task was simply to provide the relevant context for any potential scandal and allow the facts to speak for themselves. Perhaps it was a sign of the naïveté of me and the other staff that we believed this would be in any way sufficient.
As I quickly learned, no one on either side of the issue much cared about the facts. The only question asked either by the governor’s supporters or detractors was, “How would this hurt the governor’s prospects?” Having already made up their minds about his fitness for the Presidency, almost no one much cared about the details of any particular controversy. (No one, at least, on our side. To my surprise, the dreaded “mainstream media” seemed to be the only outlets that were interested in getting the full story. Conservative media and bloggers had almost no interest in getting the full story.)
This seemed especially true on the issue of clemency, commutations, and pardons. Few people understood the difference between these legal terms or the way in which Arkansas’ legal system required an unusual level of involvement in these matters by the movie downloads governor’s office. It took me several weeks—and many late-night reading sessions—to even begin to grasp the complexity of the issues enough to form my own judgment about the prudence of the decisions.
After reviewing hundreds of cases and interviewing numerous people involved in the process, I concluded to my own satisfaction that the governor’s actions and judgment were generally defensible. Yet there remained about a half-dozen situations in which even after reviewing all of the information I was unpersuaded that justice had been served. Although I was sympathetic with some of the justifications offered for making the decisions, I found them inadequate for a number of reasons.
For example, in a number of the cases—and almost always in the most controversial requests for commutation—there was sense that the petitioners were attempting to redress injustices committed by the “Clinton machine.” The disdain for Bill and Hillary Clinton and their associates that peaked among conservatives in the early 1990s remains palpable among Republicans in Arkansas. Many of the petitioners and supporters of the commutations and pardons were truly convinced that they were simply rectifying injustices committed by the former Democratic governor and his cronies. (This was especially true in the infamous Wayne DuMond case where the victim was a second cousin of Bill Clinton.)
If you believe that the Clintons possess near mystical powers to control an entire state, then you might find this way of thinking persuasive. I do not. Yet I’m convinced that had it not been for abject hatred of the Clintons many of these cases would never have been considered worthy of the governor’s attention.
But while this may partially explain the reason these cases came to the governor’s desk, it doesn’t explain why Huckabee supported them. Huckabee, a savvy politician, was fully aware of both the power and limitations of the Clinton network. He possessed an exceedingly realistic view of their abilities and flaws. Unfortunately, he often had a blind spot that prevented him from seeing his own limitation.
For instance, the politically prudent tactic would have been to simply refuse to grant any leniency—ever. Other governors with their sights set on higher offices had learned that doing nothing—even to correct obvious instances of injustice—was unlikely to cause any long-term political damage. Keeping an innocent man in prison is less harmful to an ambitious politician than freeing someone who may commit other crimes.
Huckabee would certainly discover this political reality the hard way. Initially, I chalked it up solely to extraordinary political courage. Later, I tempered this view when I realized that this courage was mixed with a large dose of cluelessness. The governor seemed genuinely surprised that he was held responsible for the criminal acts committed by those whose sentences he had commuted as governor. It was as if he believed that simply having noble intentions and a willingness to make tough decisions would provide political cover. The notion that he should be accountable for future crimes committed by these men seemed as foreign to him as the idea that he should refuse all leniency.
His naivete about how his actions would be judged was compounded by his own belief in the nobleness of his motives. Huckabee was—and likely remains—a true believer in the concept of restorative justice. Like many politicians who latch onto ideas that support their worldview, however, he was enthusiastic about the general theory while failing to grasp the nuances of its application.
Judging from the records, the governor also seemed to put a lot of weight on conversion stories—a common trait among evangelicals, who believe the gospel is sufficient for restoration and redemption of character. The opinion of clergy appears to have carried a great deal of weight in the decision-making process. As journalist Marc Ambinger wrote about the DuMond case in 2007:
Clearly, Huckabee misjudged the character of DuMond. Or maybe he didn’t.
DuMond claimed he had found God; he was a model prisoner; he gave the state no reason to believe that the prison experience wasn’t reforming; there weren’t any signs that DuMond had any intention of offending again.
What Huckabee misjudged is his ability to judge the character of a convicted murderer and rapists, a lapse out of a character for a pastor who believes in the sinful nature of an — or a lapse in character for a pastor who believes in redemption. DuMond may have been predisposed to violence, or some external event had a triggering effect on his violent behavior. In any event, we’re talking here about criminology and psychology, domains that Huckabee had no expertise in, and domains that, arguably, politicians ought to keep at brain’s length.
Ironically, what makes Huckabee such an appealing Presidential candidate—his empathy for all people and genuine belief in the individual—is also the trait that will prevent him from ever reaching the White House. His experiences and intuitions that served him well as a minister of the gospel were not always applicable in his role as governor of a state. The unfortunate reality is that for politicians, unlike pastors, there are limits to compassion.