“Ridiculous.” “Unacceptable.” “Just wrong.” All words used to describe GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s recent comparison between the Iran nuclear deal and the Holocaust.
But while Huckabee’s controversial comments may have attracted stern rebukes from the likes of President Barack Obama, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and Republican rival Jeb Bush – to name a few – the former Arkansas governor could end up proving that at this stage of the 2016 election, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
“We’re living in the age of Trump, so it’s very hard to break through right now,” GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak told msnbc. “If [Huckabee] just came out and said, ‘Listen, I oppose the Iran deal, it jeopardizes the state of Israel,’ we wouldn’t be talking about it.”
To say that Huckabee went a little further than that would be an understatement. In an interview with Brietbart News Saturday, Huckabee called the international nuclear agreement with Iran “idiotic” and likened Obama to a Nazi executioner.
“[H]e would take the Israelis and basically march them to the door of the oven,” Huckabee said of the president. “This is the most idiotic thing, this Iran deal. It should be rejected by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and by the American people.”
The nuclear agreement, signed two weeks ago in Vienna and endorsed by the U.N. Security Council last week, caps off a decade’s worth of negotiations between Iran and world powers over the Islamic republic’s nuclear program. In addition to limiting Iran’s nuclear production for 10 years, the deal would cut off the country’s access to nuclear fuel and equipment for 15 years – all in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars in sanctions relief. Sanctions would remain in place, however, until Iran proves to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it has met its obligations.
President Obama has repeatedly hailed the agreement as the best way of ensuring that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon. But since the framework debuted in April, critics have blasted the deal for giving Tehran far too much wiggle room to undermine IAEA scrutiny, as well as leaving out Americans still detained in Iran. Opponents also worry the deal will allow more money to flow to Middle Eastern groups bent on the destruction of Israel.
Congress has until Sept. 17 to either approve or reject the agreement, and many Republican lawmakers have been vocal with their concerns. The entire Republican presidential pack, too, has spoken out against the deal – some with more fanfare than others. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, called President Obama the “Neville Chamberlain of our time,” referencing the British prime minister whose policy of appeasement allowed Hitler to flourish in the leadup to World War II. And Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said the deal would “without exaggeration” transform the Obama administration into “the world’s leading state sponsor and financier of radical Islamic terrorism.”
But even by those standards, Huckabee’s graphic “oven” remark stood out as over-the-top and inappropriate.
“The particular comments of Mr. Huckabee are, I think, part of just a general pattern that we’ve seen that would be considered ridiculous if it weren’t so sad,” Obama said Monday during a press conference in Ethiopia. He added that “[t]he American people deserve better.”
Hillary Clinton also weighed in, saying Huckabee’s comments have “no place in our political dialogue.”
“I’m disappointed and I’m really offended personally,” the former secretary of state told reporters following an energy speech in Iowa. “I know Gov. Huckabee, I have a cordial relationship with him, he served as the governor of Arkansas. But I find this kind of inflammatory rhetoric totally unacceptable.”
Even fellow Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who’s no fan of the Iran deal, said it was time to “tone down the rhetoric.”
“Look, I’ve been to Israel probably as many times as Mike Huckabee, who I respect. But the use of that kind of language in – it’s just wrong,” the former Florida governor said at a pastors meet-and-greet in Orlando Monday. “This is not the way we’re going to win elections, and that’s not how we’re going to solve problems.”
Mackowiak believes Huckabee’s rhetoric stems from a genuine and deeply felt concern for the fate of Israel. “Keep in mind,” he said, “Huckabee is probably the strongest pro-Israel candidate we have.”
But even so, as a presidential candidate eight years ago, Huckabee struck a far more moderate stance – at least outwardly – on U.S.-Iranian relations. In a 2008 Foreign Affairs article entitled, “America’s Priorities in the War on Terror,” Huckabee argued that diplomacy was better than a military option and said it was incumbent on the U.S. to reach out to Iran.
“Sun-tzu’s ancient wisdom is relevant today: ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,’” Huckabee wrote. “Yet we have not had diplomatic relations with Iran in almost 30 years; the U.S. government usually communicates with the Iranian government through the Swiss embassy in Tehran. When one stops talking to a parent or a friend, differences cannot be resolved and relationships cannot move forward.”
Assuming that Huckabee’s commitment to Israel was just as strong eight years ago as it is today, what then accounts for his marked shift in both tone and substance on the issue? Two words, according to Mackowiak: The Donald.
“The ‘Trumpization’ of the Republican primary is real,” Mackowiak said. “We have Rand Paul taking a chainsaw to the tax code, Lindsey Graham putting his cell phone in the blender. Everyone is trying to employ some of the same tactics as Trump, but no other candidate is as irresponsible. We’re all amateurs compared to him.”
Since announcing his presidential ambitions last month – and accusing undocumented immigrants from Mexico of bringing rape and crime in the process – Donald Trump has commanded the national spotlight with one jaw-dropping comment after another. And for whatever reason, voters seems to love it. According to an average of national polls tracked by NBC News, Trump is leading the Republican presidential pack with 18%.
That kind of popularity is especially important with just over a week to go until the first primary debate in Cleveland. This year, Fox News is only allowing the top 10 candidates to participate based on an average of five national polls leading up to the two days before the Aug. 6 debate. Six candidates, therefore, will be left on the outside looking in.
“We’ve got 16 presidential candidates all trying to get to the debates or rise in the polls,” Republican political strategist Phillip Stutts told msnbc. “All the oxygen in the room has been sucked out and they’re just trying to make news.”
With 5.6% average support as of now, Huckabee looks to be safely in the top ten. But given the Trump factor and new debate rules, it is perhaps understandable why Huckabee would want to keep up the bacon, Beyoncé, and bad words talk that has so successfully netted him headlines this year.
Huckabee, for his part, denies pursuing that strategy. In an interview Tuesday with NBC’s Matt Lauer, Huckabee once again defended his “oven” remark and dismissed a question about whether he was simply trying to compete with Trump for air time.
“I’ll swim in my lane. I’ll let Donald Trump swim in his,” he said.
With 16 candidates, however, there’s bound to be some overlap. After all, an Olympic-size swimming pool – much like next week’s debate stage – only has ten lanes.