Monday, November 30, 2009

Huckabee and Horton

By some estimations, the handicapping of GOP contenders for the 2012 presidential derby has already started. Certain names (Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Bobby Jindal, Mitt Romney) we’ve heard before. Others (Newt Gingrich and [God help us] Dick Cheney) may be no more than stalking horses, conversation starters at the Georgetown cocktail parties where the best laid Republican plans to recapture the White House are being hatched.

One of those possible Oval Office aspirants may have more of an uphill slog than previously thought. Like an earlier presidential hopeful on the other side of the aisle, Mike Huckabee already has some ‘splainin to do.

Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and one-time Krispy Kreme enthusiast, once made full use of the gubernatorial powers of clemency in 2000 by granting a pardon to one Maurice Clemmons — commuting a 95-year prison sentence for aggravated robbery.

Clemmons has a long rap sheet, including five felony convictions in Arkansas. After Huckabee’s clemency, Clemmons broke parole and went back to prison in July 2001. Clemmons was released in March 2004, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper. He moved to Washington state later that year.

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Inexplicably, despite having at least eight felony charges in Washington state — including a third-degree assault on a police officer and a second-degree child-rape charge that ordinarily carries a possible life sentence — Clemmons was released from the Pierce County Jail last week.

He is now the suspect in the execution-style killing of four police officers from the Lakewood, Wash., police department, on Sunday morning. Clemmons is suspected of having shot the four officers as they sat in a Forza coffee shop in Parkland, Wash., before their shift.

One of the officers is believed to have wounded Clemmons before he fled the scene. At this writing, Clemmons hasn’t been found despite an exhaustive multi-agency dragnet and a $145,000 reward for information leading to his capture and conviction.

But for Huckabee, one of the more affable and telegenic Republican candidates last year, Clemmons is already something of a political liability. Those political observers with reasonably good memories know why.

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See, if he runs in 2012, Huckabee will be forced to contend with the specter of one Willie Horton, a convicted rapist who was released from prison on a furlough program in June 1986 by then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, only to return to a life of crime, raping a woman and assaulting her fiancĂ© in Oxon Hill, Md., in April 1987.  He remains in prison in Maryland.

Horton’s weekend release by Dukakis was used early & often by his principal Republican challenger, George Herbert Walker Bush, in the 1988 presidential campaign as a way of suggesting that Dukakis was soft on crime, and lacking the judgment to be president.

The prison mug shot of Horton was used in a GOP campaign ad pillorying Dukakis for his action; the Horton debacle was widely seen as one of the reasons for Dukakis' fail in his quest for the presidency.

Fast forward 21 years: Another Mike’s doing damage control for a campaign, but this time for one that may not get off the ground.

Huckabee talked to Fox Radio today. :”If I could have known nine years ago, would I have acted favorably upon the parole board’s recommendation? Of course not.”

He said much the same thing again when he was encountered by a reporter from KLRT-TV, the Fox affiliate in Little Rock: “Well, it’s a horrible, horrible thing, what happened in Washington,” Huckabee said. “I just think that the fact that he was ever here breaks all of our hearts that he would kill four police officers in cold blood. … It was my decision based on what was in front of me, not nine years in front of me.”

If only the Republicans in 1988 had been so accommodating, so respectful of a Democratic candidate’s similar inability to predict the future.

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Huckabee isn’t getting any love from at least one of the state officials he dealt with when he was governor. Larry Jegley, the prosecutor for Pulaski County, Ark., where Clemmons was previously tried and convicted, told NBC News that “I think the clemency power was overused by our former governor, and I think this is a bitter harvest we are reaping because of it.”

The Associated Press reported Monday that a study by the Arkansas Leader newspaper found that from 1996 to 2004, Huckabee freed more Arkansas prisoners on his watch “than were freed from all of Arkansas' six neighboring states — combined.”

The AP reported that in 2004, The Democrat-Gazette determined that “9 percent of the prisoners who benefited from Huckabee's clemencies ended up in prison again.”

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It’s way early to know if Huckabee’s gubernatorial gaffe will haunt him in any future campaigns. He’s not a lock to run in 2012 anyway, and right now, polling suggests that the candidate best equipped to be the Republican standard-bearer in the ’12 contest is somebody named “Other.”

If he does throw his hat into a ring that’s sure to get crowded in the next year and a half, Huckabee can count on Clemmons keeping him company all the days of his campaign.

“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner once observed in “Requiem for a Nun.”  “It’s not even past.” Mike Huckabee knows that all too well.

Image credits: Huckabee: © 2008 David Ball. Clemmons: Washington Department of Corrections. Horton screenshot: Republican Party ad.

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