Nearly nine years removed from holding public office, Mike Huckabee is a different candidate now in a number of ways, operating at a much greater remove from the homegrown populism of his insurgent 2008 campaign – but he’s going to try to bottle that old magic to make his brand of social moralizing and economic moderation populist again.
The problem for Huckabee is that there are better populists out there now. Both Huckabee and Chris Christie passed on running in 2012 for their various reasons, but in doing so, the field has caught up to them in an ability to rouse the engaged and active volunteers and early voters. Ted Cruz is king of the populists on the stump, the quick on his feet litigator with an unbroken string history and principle and active verbs. Rand Paul’s donations show his donor base is overwhelmingly rural, with a quarter coming from communities with fewer than 10,000 people. Rick Perry is still out there Rooster Cogburning, Bobby Jindal is pounding the Iowa pulpit circuit, and Ben Carson has the Tea Party appeal of a new shiny object. And Marco Rubio, who once endorsed Huckabee, is trying to be the definition of a next generation full spectrum conservative – all of the upsides of a charming social conservative, none of the downsides of letting prisoners walk.
Also Rick Santorum is around here somewhere. More on him in a minute.
Huckabee seems to me to be a candidate mostly running because he has people around him who want him to do so, and are willing to pay to get him in the race – less because he actually wants to do it seriously. The problem is that for some of the other candidates the need to eliminate Huckabee early is fairly high. He went through a fairly toxic experience in 2008 as his record was bashed by fiscal conservatives, tough on crime types, and libertarians – this ammo and more will probably be used against him early. It’s a lot easier to be a TV host than it is to run for president, particularly when your form of populism places you solidly in between Ted Cruz and the nomination.
S.E. Cupp, though, thinks Huckabee should be taken seriously and shouldn’t be underestimated in the context of 2016. And she’s right. Some conservatives are dismissing his potential, writing that he’s running for president as a liberal blogger. Huckabee certainly does break with the party on old-age entitlements and free trade – here he is denouncing the Trans-Pacific Partnership Investment treaty as cronyism that will hurt American workers. But to suggest that this perspective doesn’t have a significant faction of support on the American right is just foolish.
The fact is that a lot of people who consider themselves Republicans who don’t have advanced degrees, fellowships, or work in conservative policy agree with Mike Huckabee about this sort of thing. There are plenty of people who consider themselves Republicans because of abortion and guns who are still largely sympathetic to arguments that free trade and free markets hurt American workers. Not a majority, not even a plurality, but enough to give Huckabee a boost. “That telegenic and likable but inconveniently socially conservative political survivor can’t possibly be a factor because he’s suspicious of international trade deals and Social Security cuts” is the sort of thing a lot of people in politics and media say without realizing how nonsensical it is.
Mike Huckabee’s message is essentially a tribal one, not a coherent or consistent philosophy. It’s a timid, cynical agenda wrapped in a hodge-podge of faux-populist status quo Pepperidge Farm Remembers nostalgia. It plays wonderfully with Huckabee’s tribe, and decently well outside of it (even to the point that many of those who disagree with him find him endearing). Remember: three short years ago we were wondering whether a sweater-vested Rick Santorum, someone whose throwback policy views are generally identical to Huckabee’s without any of the charming packaging, could actually win Ohio. Of course those views placed within a person with a preacher’s gift for retail could make political noise. And that’s actually more of a problem for conservatives than it is for the Republican Party as a whole.
Conservatism’s greatest political accomplishment in the modern era has been its intellectual takeover of the GOP. The leadership class of the Republican Party has its own tribe – the tribe of Washington and Wall Street, and the priorities of the business class – and sometimes that tribe wins out. But it’s clear that the ideas agenda on the right is largely driven by conservatives, debating the path forward within the context of shared beliefs. To conservatives, 2016 is so important because it gives them a real chance to have a genuine true believer take the reins from leadership.
In 2016, we already have a number of candidates who are looking to offer a coherent worldview that favors a shift in the direction of the conservative movement and a political path forward. Senators Paul, Cruz, and Rubio (and their obvious intellectual backers in different corners) are looking to offer a coherent vision of government, reform, and the center-right coalition informed by lessons from the failures and successes of the George W. Bush presidency. They are trying to rebrand the party in a serious way according to their deeply held ideas about the nation, not just according to the traditional factors of power-broking, pulpit, and personality. Whether you’re a reformocon or not, Huckabee represents a direct challenge to that, as Ross Douthat acknowledges. And he is starting from a good position: he enters the race in double digits in Iowa, nipping at the heels of those three aforementioned senators plus Scott Walker.
Conservatives have a recurring waking nightmare about what happens when non-conservatives call themselves conservatives while doing not-conservative stuff, and the resulting fallout as the media and the country blame conservatism for Republican failures. They could easily live that nightmare again if they underestimate Huckabee’s brand of politics, particularly if they’re of the mindset that the Midwestern voters will look askance for him for his failure to back means testing and Medicare premium support. If conservatives can’t beat that throwback faux-populism with a group of dynamic younger politicians, then they might find themselves needing to decide next year whether they’d be more comfortable with Mike Huckabee or Jeb Bush.