From: The New York Times
May 15, 2011
A Requiem for Huckabee
By ROSS DOUTHAT
Most candidates for the highest office in the land spend months, if not years, currying favor with the rich and powerful: glad-handing at fund-raising dinners, schmoozing in mansions, pressing the flesh in Aspen and Manhattan and Nob Hill.
Not so Mike Huckabee. He ran for president in 2008 with no money, no campaign infrastructure, no professional handlers or ad gurus or wardrobe consultants. (When I interviewed him in New Hampshire, he had just ironed his own suit.) His entire campaign — which won him more delegates than Mitt Romney’s lavishly financed operation — consisted of showing up for any television program that would have him, and turning on the charm.
It’s no surprise, then, that Huckabee prefers his new life as a Fox News host to the dubious pleasures of another presidential run. But he’ll be missed in the 2012 race, and not just because his absence promises to dramatically reduce the entertainment value of the Republican debates.
He’ll be missed because he embodied a political persuasion that’s common in American life but rare in America’s political class. This worldview mixes cultural conservatism with economic populism: it’s tax-sensitive without being stridently antigovernment, skeptical of Wall Street as well as Washington, and as concerned about immigration, family breakdown and public morals as it is about the debt ceiling.
This combination of views represents one of the plausible middle grounds in American politics. You can find it in the Republican Party, among the evangelicals and Catholics whose votes made the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush possible. You can find it among independent voters, particularly in what a recent Pew report calls the “disaffected” demographic, whose hostility to big government coexists with anxieties about corporate power and support for redistribution of wealth. And you find it in the Democratic Party as well — from the dwindling ranks of pro-life Catholic liberals to the “Bill Cosby conservatives” in the African-American middle class.
But few of these people are members of the American elite. Call someone a “centrist” or a “moderate” in the salons of Washington or New York, and everyone will assume that you’re talking about a deficit hawk who supports open borders, or a Republican C.E.O. who writes checks to Planned Parenthood. Among our leadership class, centrism invariably means some combination of big-business conservatism and social progressivism — the politics of pro-choice Republicans, hedge fund Democrats and Michael Bloomberg independents.
This is why Huckabee’s 2008 campaign seemed to come out of nowhere. The press was baffled, and often delighted: here was a right-wing politician who talked easily about health care and admitted that the Bush economy had been lousy for working families. (There would have been less delight, of course, if he had actually won the Republican nomination: then all the talk would have turned to his supposedly “scary” views on issues like abortion.)
Republican elites, meanwhile, were appalled. They called him a class warrior and a pro-life liberal, and regularly insinuated that he had jumped above his station. (Lisa Schiffren, a former speechwriter for Dan Quayle, memorably suggested that Huckabee go back to “that bait shop on the lake. ... You’ll be surrounded by nice neighbors, real Christians, and you can be the smartest guy in the room.”)
Never mind that Huckabee’s record as governor of Arkansas was at least as conservative as Mitt Romney’s in Massachusetts. Somehow, the Romney of 2008 just seemed like a more plausible Republican nominee. Like many American political entrepreneurs, from George W. Bush to John Edwards to Rush Limbaugh, he was a well-connected rich guy posing as a populist. Whereas Huckabee really was a populist — a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University rather than Harvard Business School, and a man with no interest in the rhetorical correctness and interest-group ring-kissing that both parties expect of their nominees.
Of course, his 2008 campaign also reflected populism’s inevitable flaw: a desperate lack of policy substance. Huckabee won votes by talking about issues that the other Republican candidates wouldn’t touch, but his actual agenda was a grab bag of gimmicks and crank ideas. And nothing in his subsequent television career has indicated a strong interest in putting policy meat on the bones of his worldview.
Still, his candidacy illuminated a path that more politicians should take. We live in an age of economic stagnation and social crisis, and the two are intimately connected. The collapse of the two-parent family and unfettered low-skilled immigration have made America more stratified. The Wall Street-Washington axis really did drive the country into a ditch.
For all his faults, Mike Huckabee knew how to talk about these problems. Now we need leaders with ideas for what do about them.