Just for the sport of it, let us conjure this alternative universe:
Imagine, if you will, that the Democrats are out of power in 2009, and anxious to recapture the White House in 2012. One of their prospective candidates is a smooth-talking former governor who hosts a cable news show. He is polling very well among Democrats; according to the latest USA Today-Gallup survey, 71 percent of his party brethren say they would "seriously consider" supporting a 2012 candidacy - the best showing of any prospective party candidate.
On the other hand, let us imagine that this selfsame Democrat is hardly perfect. He unsuccessfully sought the nomination in 2008, flaming out early just as a troublesome issue arose: it turned out that, as governor, he had successfully lobbied to parole a convicted rapist who, one year after being freed, wound up murdering a woman in another state. Shades of Mike Dukakis, the '88 Democrat who presided over a furlough program that freed a rapist. Now flash forward to 2009, where it turns out, in our scenario, that this same Democratic presidential hopeful had, as governor, commuted the sentence of another dirtbag, thus paving the way for parole...and this dirtbag winds up in another state, where he apparently shoots and kills four police officers, execution-style, as they sip their morning coffee.
Care to guess how viable this Democrat's presidential candidacy would be, in the wake of these two incidents? The guy would already be buried under six feet of fresh topsoil. Meanwhile, the Republicans would be gleefully trucking a cement mixer to the burial site, and declaring that such a typically soft-on-crime, bleeding-heart liberal Democrat should never be permitted to rise again.
But now, back to reality. We're actually talking here about that heretofore popular Republican hopeful, conservative talk show host and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
Given the mounting evidence that Huckabee was pivotal in freeing two future murderers - one of them, apparently, a cop killer - we can presumably assume that his 71 percent rating among Republicans (yes, that Gallup figure was real) will plummet in the days ahead, and that, in terms of elective politics, he is now and forever a dead man. It's inconceivable that the Republicans would tolerate and elevate their own Dukakis.
But this is not the end of the story. Most fascinating is the interplay between Huckabee's decision-making and his evangelical Christian faith. (He was a pastor and Baptist leader prior to becoming governor.) Devout Christianity has long been a staple of the GOP's "family values" agenda; at the same time, the party has long prided itself as being tough on crime, all the while insisting that wimp emotions such as "empathy" and "compassion" were liberal criminal-coddling concepts.
Yet here we have evidence that a conservative Republican's Christian faith prompted him to go soft on some dangerous criminals. Exhibit A was his move to free Wayne DuMond back in 1996. DuMond was serving a life sentence in Arkansas for kidnapping and raping a teenage cheerleader, but Huckabee, the new governor, was impressed that DuMond prayed and read the Bible. Huckabee was also swayed toward leniancy by one of his close friends, a pastor who insisted to Huckabee that DuMond was "born again." Ultimately, Huckabee leaned on the parole board to set DuMond free; three board members later said that Huckabee "pressured" them. Result? One year after release, DuMond suffocated a mother of three in Missouri.
Now comes Maurice Clemmons, newly dead after a Monday evening shootout with police in Washington state, where he was the prime suspect in the execution-style murders of four Seattle area cops. Clemmons at one time was serving a virtual life sentence in Arkansas, after having racked up an endless string of felonies. In 1999, however, Clemmons sought to have his sentence radically shortened, so that he could be made eligible for parole. In his appeals to Huckabee, he smartly played the religion card:
"I come from a very good Christian family....I've never done anything good for God, but I've prayed for him to grant me in his compassion the Grace to make a new start....I pray you will be compassionate to my situation....It is so prayed!"
The prosecutors vehemently opposed commutation of sentence. Huckabee defied the prosecutors and signed the commutation in March 2000. Thus eligible for parole, Clemmons soon got it. He subsequently slipped through a lot of cracks in the system, but all those missteps flowed from Huckabee's decision. The results are now clear to the families of those four dead cops. One of the Arkansas prosecutors told The Seattle Times, "This is the day I've been dreading for a long time."
Granted, any governor can make a decision that looks like a mistake in retrospect. But consider these stats: When Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, he issued 426 pardons and commutations over a span of 13 years. Mike Huckabee issued 1033 in 10 years.
Is it unfair to suggest that his Christian faith made him soft on crime? Not according to Joe Carter, who served as Huckabee's research director during the 2008 presidential primary season campaign, and who studied Huckabee's gubernatorial record as part of his job. Now website editor at the conservative First Things magazine, Carter wrote yesterday that Huckabee "must bear a sufficient measure of responsibility" for what happened this weekend in Washington state - and argued that Huckabee's "naivete" was directly traceable to his evangelical sensibility:
"Huckabee was - and likely remains - a true believer in the concept of restorative justice...The governor seemed to put a lot weight on conversion stories - a common trait among evangelicals, who believe the gospel is sufficient for restoration and redemption of character. The opinion of the clergy appears to have carried a great deal of weight in the decision-making process...His experiences and intuitions that served him well as a minister of the gospel were not always applicable as governor of a state."
Then Carter delivered his funeral euology for Huckabee's political career, albeit in gentle terms: "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."
In other words, Huckabee would be well advised to seek an extended contract from Fox News, and remain within its friendly confines. And the next time religious and social conservatives are tempted to deride Democrats as soft-on-crime purveyors of "empathy" and "compassion," they'd be well advised to ponder the downfall of one of their own.