Who Will Be Listening to Mike Huckabee’s “Populist” Attacks on His GOP Rivals?

There have been two very different takes on Mike Huckabee’s 2016 presidential candidacy. One, best articulated by Elizabeth Stoker Breunig at TNR, dismisses him as a figure from the past, whose “folksy charm and church basement coffee-talk demeanor” represents an archaic appeal to a Christian Right constituency that’s not fighting the same old culture wars. The other, which I’ve argued for at TPMCafe and here, is that the jury’s still out on Huck ’16, but that he is certainly trying to do something this time around that his 2008 campaign only hinted at: a full-scale “conservative populist” message that exposes and exploits rank-and-file disagreement with GOP economic policies, especially on trade and “entitlement reform.”

Now comes Bruenig’s TNR colleague Brian Beutler with a strong argument on my side of the barricades, but slightly less inclined to treat Huck as a real “populist:” For Brian, it’s all about the old folks:

Huckabee appears to be aware of his liabilities, and is thus angling not only for the evangelical vote, but for the old person vote in general. He’s adopted the view, unfathomable in modern Republican politics, that support programs for the elderly shouldn’t be tampered with, and not just for today’s seniors, but for at least a generation. By doing so he’s violated the GOP’s implicit pact that discourages members from accentuating the tensions between the party’s fiscal priorities and its aging political base. If he makes good on this cynical strategy, he will probably still lose, but his candidacy will have served a valuable and revealing purpose.

I’m with him on that, though I still think Republican-leaning white-working class voters, young or old, are significantly less inclined to buy “entitlement reform” than more upscale conservatives, young or old, and also don’t care much for “free trade,” Huck’s other target. Most of them, as a matter of fact, are mainly attracted to the GOP for its cultural and anti-government positioning, and many have no problem with Huck’s old-time religion.

Either way, I agree with Beutler on the problem this presents to the rest of the presidential field:

Normally the way things work in Republican primaries is that candidates seek advantage by drawing attention to their opponents’ insufficient commitment to conservatism. Huckabee’s big bet is that—in this one substantive realm, where conservatism and voter self-interest point in opposite directions—he can do the same by running to the left. Watching him test this theory, even in defeat, will be fascinating.

My guess is that Huck’s GOP opponents will in fact attack him for “running to the left” without addressing his underlying position with any great specificity, and hope they can get him out of the race pretty fast (look for conservative media to create very high expectations for Huck at the Iowa Straw Poll in August). But he does pose a threat that isn’t limited to his success or failure in cornering the Christian Right political market, or even making himself a viable candidate. And BTW, the audience for Huck’s dramatization of the “broken promises” represented by Republican “entitlement reform” proposals will most definitely include Democrats, who will be quoting Huck long after he’s folded his tent and gone back to selling books and questionable medical treatments.

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.