Mike Huckabee was supposed to be an amusing sideshow. Just last August, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani dominated the GOP big tent, capturing the spotlight with their massive fundraising efforts and early endorsements. Meanwhile, without a single reporter in tow, Huckabee wandered around New Hampshire and Iowa, speaking to perhaps a dozen people at a time, joking that other candidates “pay $150 for an exfoliation. I could just hand them a bar of Lava soap.” Beltway conservatives and consultants, enjoying Huck’s genial act, speculated that he might make a nice vice president and laughed at his harmless quips. They aren’t laughing anymore.
As Huckabee moved up in the polls, his campaign chairman Ed Rollins declared the Reagan coalition dead, implying that Huckabee could form a new one in its place. The leaders of the conservative movement struck back: free-market activists spent thousands on ads to halt Huckabee’s rise in Iowa, and editors of the leading conservative publications denounced his “populism” and “evangelical identity politics.” Rush Limbaugh told his 20 million listeners that a Huckabee nomination would be a disaster.
Then he started winning. In Iowa he beat the heavily funded, establishment-approved Romney by 9 points and moved from sixth to third in New Hampshire, scrambling the entire Republican race. He is running close to John McCain in national polls and leading in delegate-rich states like South Carolina and Georgia.
Huckabee has convinced his supporters that the Religious Right has too long endured second-class citizenship in the conservative movement. Ironically, the anti-elite posture that Beltway conservatives taught heartlanders to assume when confronting the media or academia has been turned against establishment conservatives themselves. David Brooks declared in the New York Times, “The old guard threw everything they had at him, and their diminished power is now exposed.”
The Beltway Right has reason to worry. As a rhetorician, Huckabee is as good as anyone in politics today. He can stir an audience like Barack Obama, but he adds a deft sense of humor and pop culture that allows him to keep up with media figures like Stephen Colbert or Jay Leno—qualities unexpected in a leader of the Religious Right.
But obvious as his talents are, Huckabee’s policy prescriptions have been hard to decipher. On foreign policy, he grabbed headlines by denouncing the Bush administration’s “arrogant bunker-mentality,” and in a nod to realism, he wrote that the U.S. policy toward Iran should be containment, not confrontation. He says that there are options between “shock and awe” and “cut and run.” But just as observers began speculating that Huckabee might decouple Christian conservatives from the aggressive foreign policy of the Bush administration, he suggested that Palestinians could form their own state in Egypt or Saudi Arabia. So far, he has managed to make members of nearly every school of foreign policy uneasy.
Asked about economics, Huckabee claims to be “a Main Street Republican, not a Wall Street Republican” and preaches a message of economic independence—even nationalism. Speaking to a group of social conservatives, he declared, “A country that cannot feed itself, that cannot fuel itself, and that cannot fight for itself with its own weapons which it manufactures itself is a nation that is not longer free. … I don’t want to see our food come from China, our oil come from Saudi Arabia, and our manufacturing come from Europe and Asia.” Yet Huckabee has not called for an end to NAFTA or for implementing protective tariffs, insisting against evidence to the contrary that he is a free trader.
Establishment conservatives, deciding that the joke from Hope has gone on long enough, have begun sneering with increasing condescension. “That bait shop on the lake—it’s looking good,” Lisa Schiffren blogged on National Review Online. “You’ll be surrounded by nice neighbors, real Christians, and you can be the smartest guy in the room. … Remember Huck—Jesus wouldn’t be dumb enough to go into politics. You were right on that one. Maybe it’s not what he wants from you either.”
Former House majority leader Dick Armey penned a blistering attack on Huckabee’s “feel good politics” and told TAC that he “sounds more like John Edwards than John Edwards.” According to Armey, the conservative movement must balance its priorities: “The traditional, successful, happy Reagan coalition is a coalition of conservatives that came from an economic wing and a social wing tied together by their commitment to constrain the growth of government.” Armey laughs at the idea that Republicans want evangelicals in the backseat: “I can’t remember someone who has been elected besides Reagan that hasn’t caused Jim Dobson to say, ‘He’ll betray us.’”
Asked which candidate comes closest to his vision for the party, Armey chooses Rudy Giuliani. The former mayor’s tax plan, Armey enthuses, “is the biggest supply-side statement of any candidate in the race,” and Giuliani’s commitment to small government commends him to the conservative movement. Of course, Giuliani is also pro-choice and pro-civil-unions.
It is precisely Armey’s understanding of “balance” that has created the backlash for Huckabee. Consider: Romney’s conversion to social conservatism is recent and, to many, unconvincing. Yet National Review endorsed him. Giuliani has been considered an enemy of social conservatism since he was first elected mayor of New York. And John McCain opposed the Bush tax cuts. Writing in The American Spectator, George Neumayr sympathized with evangelicals: “How is it that the bar of conservative entry for a presidential nominee lowers for the Romneys and McCains, then rises for the Huckabees?” Neumayr suspects that vitriol is directed at Huckabee not because he “takes this or that heterodox position on issues of economics/trade/foreign policy; it is that he’s a transparent Christian conservative.”
Joe Carter, an activist at the Family Research Council, took a leave of absence to spend a month acting as Huckabee’s rapid-response man. He seconds Neumayr’s analysis and highlights the barely disguised class conflict in the GOP: “The establishment Republicans don’t want some hillbilly preacher to be president.” To Carter and others, the conservative establishment’s contempt for Huckabee feels familiar. It mirrors the liberal establishment’s disdain for conservatives generally. And so just as Beltway conservatives have taught middle America to resent the liberal elites, so Huckabee and his supporters have leveraged evangelical discontent at those who tell them to “sit down and take what the party gives you.”
The turning point in Huckabee’s campaign came at the Values Voters Summit held by FRC last October. All the Republican candidates came to speak to the largely evangelical crowd, and the leaders of social conservatism hoped to announce their united endorsement. Though Romney was given the keynote spot, Huckabee blew the doors off the conference, saying, “I come today as one not who comes to you, but as one who comes from you. … I think it’s important that people sing from their hearts and don’t merely lip-synch the lyrics to our songs.” Attendees bought Huckabee’s identity-based appeal and voted for him overwhelmingly in the event’s straw poll.
In the weeks that followed, Huckabee continued to call for evangelical solidarity, telling Zev Chafets of the New York Times, “If my own abandon me on the battlefield, it will have a chilling effect.” Recently, campaigning in Michigan, Huckabee told reporters, “Many of us who have been Republicans out of conviction … the social conservatives, were welcomed in the party as long as we sort of kept our place, but Lord help us if we ever stood forward and said we would actually like to lead the party.” For years the Beltway Right had posed to heartlanders as an “us,” but for evangelicals supporting Huckabee, National Review, the Club for Growth, and the Republican establishment now resemble a “them.”
Huckabee’s success also corresponds with an intellectual shift among conservatives focused on rising middle-class anxiety. This summer, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam are set to publish Grand New Party, in which they argue that the Republican Party must address the economic needs and aspirations of its middle-class base, transforming itself into the party of Sam’s Club rather than the country club. They praise Huckabee’s populist sensibilities.
Similarly, in a column that told Huckabee-fearing Republicans, “Be Not Afraid,” neoconservative David Brooks framed the preacher’s rise this way: “Huckabee understands that economic well-being is fused with social and moral well-being, and he talks about the inter-relationship in a way no other candidate has.” Brooks argued, “A conservatism that pays attention to people making less than $50,000 a year is the only conservatism worth defending.” Huckabee doesn’t yet demonstrate policy sophistication, but it’s easy to imagine reform-minded conservatives refining his instincts.
Even if Huckabee fails to capture the nomination, he may still effect significant change in the GOP coalition. In 2004, Republicans nabbed three out of four white evangelical votes. Karl Rove credited them with Bush’s re-election. But just as these voters demonstrated their power, their leadership was disappearing. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell have passed away; others like James Dobson are on their way out of public ministry. Carter believes Huckabee can easily fill the void of evangelical leadership, but he warns that Republicans shouldn’t expect another compliant pastor who will shepherd the masses to the polls then otherwise leave them alone. “Because Huckabee doesn’t come from the establishment, he doesn’t owe them any favors. He has the potential to lead a new movement—and not just evangelicals alone.”
If the affable preacher consolidates his influence over the largest bloc of voters in the GOP, he’ll have the whip hand in the Republican coalition. No wonder the establishment is wincing.