Huckabee and the White Working Class

Since a lot of the talk surrounding Mike Huckabee’s presidential announcement assumed he was just recycling his 2008 campaign message in a much tougher environment, I thought it was appropriate to take a closer look at what was new in Huckland: the attacks on trade agreements and “entitlement reform” proposals that provided some substance for the purely rhetorical “populism” of his 2008 bid. Moreover, it made sense to me to look at Huck’s economic heresies in terms of the bipartisan battle over non-college-educated white voters. So that’s what I did in my latest column for TPMCafe.

It should be reasonably obvious that a lot of the pressure for a more “populist” Democratic message and agenda is motivated consciously or subconsciously by the desire to win back, or at least limit losses among, the white working class voters who have now become one of the more reliable Republican demographic groups. And though it hasn’t gotten quite as much attention, Republicans have become nervous about the large and growing gap between the GOP’s corporations-and-job-creators centered economic and fiscal policies and the actual interests of their actual voters. This is the worry that has motivated Reformicons to come up with fiscal plans that at least pay lip service to the economic concerns of middle-class and lower-middle-class families, and has on a separate track led libertarians to promote a whole “populist” narrative about government subsidies and “crony capitalism” in an effort to depict the GOP as fighting for the masses against the classes.

What Huck seems to be doing is a lot more direct and potentially more powerful: going after precisely those conservative policy prescriptions that white working class voters do not tend to like: free trade agreements and cuts in Social Security and Medicare. He talked about the latter in his announcement speech yesterday. It’s going to be an issue in the Republican primaries unless his opponents back off on “entitlement reform,” which will be difficult given their budget priorities.

Now it’s not all that clear Huck is going to be an effective spokesman for “conservative populism;” his over-the-top culture war positioning will limit his support in areas of the country where his fellow conservative evangelicals are not dominant; he will have a lot of competition for the voters he got in 2008; and his reputation as a terrible fundraiser hasn’t been dispelled at all so far. He’s not exactly promoting a seamless “populist” agenda, either; yet his current tack will intensify the attacks on him from the intra-party enemies he earned eight years ago.

If nothing else, Huck might expose some GOP vulnerabilities that Democrats can exploit in the general election, just as Mitt Romney’s Republican opponents did in 2012. So don’t write off Huck as a non-factor just yet.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.