Yesterday’s Washington Post included an article about Arkansas Governor (and possible presidential candidate) Mike Huckabee, titled: "Fire in the Belly." (The story focuses on Huckabee’s recent weight loss.)
Granted, the story appeared in the Post’s Style section (not the hard news section), but as a conservative who genuinely likes Mike Huckabee — and sees him as a possible serious presidential contender — I can’t help but be concerned that his media attention continues to focus on his weight loss. My concern is that his weight loss is now defining him.
The truly iconic American political candidates come pre-packaged with compelling background war stories or "myths" that portray an easily understood, if overly-simplistic, image.
Having a good storyline is vital, as once a storyline is established, the media loves to stick to it. (Please note that when I use the term "myth" — or story line — I am not implying that the information is false).
Here are a few examples of effective storylines: Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin, John F. Kennedy rescued his crew of sailors on the PT-109, and Ronald Reagan saved 77 lives saved as a lifeguard.
This tradition isn’t merely a relic of some bygone era, either. In this modern sound bite age, it’s more important than ever to have an easily-explainable image.
Recent presidential candidates have humanized themselves by crafting — and perpetuating — their story line: Bill Clinton was from a poor fatherless family, John McCain endured the "Hanoi Hilton," George Allen had a famous football father — and now Mike Huckabee has … gone on a diet! (As you can see, this last one may slightly less compelling).
These stories serve an essential role in that they not only tell the story of the candidate’s life, they also foreshadow his politics. For example, Ronald Reagan’s image as the man who saved 77 lives as a lifeguard at Lowell Park in Dixon, IL was further developed as a Hollywood actor who almost always played the hero — and later — as the world leader who brought down an "evil empire." The beauty of the storyline is that if you understand the lifeguard story, you understand a lot about Reagan the president.
Now, back to the Huckabee angle: Granted, weight loss is admirable. I admire anybody who can seize control of their lives. Maybe Huckabee can sell his weight loss as a metaphor for overcoming obstacles we all face in life. He has already effectively used it to transition into talking about related issues, such as health care. But at what point does this become a stretch? Does turning down a cheeseburger qualify as a resume builder for the presidency?
In the 21st Century, the answer may be "yes." I can foresee a scenario where, after winning the Republican nomination, candidate Huckabee goes on Oprah and woos the touch-feely swing voters with tales of his struggle with weight. Imagine the gushing. Imagine the book sales!
Pardon the pun, but the Oprah voters would eat that up.
But before Huckabee gets to woo swing voters, he needs to win the Republican nomination. And while his weight loss is stealing the limelight, his real presidential credentials are being downplayed.
Historically, sitting governors and outsiders tend to do well with voters in presidential races. As a sitting governor, Huckabee has executive experience, and is also seen as a political outsider. While Governor Barber (MS) is currently a governor, he is not viewed as an outsider.
Additionally, in Republican primary elections, conservatives tend to perform better than their more moderate counterparts. Huckabee has tremendous credibility in the Christian conservative community. Depending on the field of candidates, this could translate into a lot of votes.
When you combine these three factors, Huckabee becomes an increasingly attractive candidate, who occupies an important niche in the Republican field.
While his background story may not be as compelling as, say, surviving a prison camp, he does have an inspiring story of overcoming adversity that most Americans can relate to. He has also wisely taken the weight loss story and expanded it to include issues such as healthcare.
If every person who has struggled with their weight were to vote for him, Huckabee would win in a landslide. Will he become the candidate conservatives are hungering for? That remains to be seen.
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