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.
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.
There are some elements of truth to Ross’ claims about what Huckabee represented and lacked, but these descriptions miss a few important things. When Huckabee’s campaign began, he did lack many specific policy proposals, and the proposals that he did endorse, including the Fair Tax scheme, had no obvious relationship to the economic concerns of the people he claimed to be representing. That is far from the worst failing of the Huckabee campaign. The worst thing about the old Huckabee campaign is that it was mainly an exercise in pseudo-populism based on cultural cues and identity politics that masked Huckabee’s adherence to the main economic policies of the Bush Era.
Huckabee indulged in phony economic populism that was based solely in his class background, and it was this dabbling in working-class identity politics that scared Republican elites as much as anything he had ever done as governor. There was no danger that Huckabee was going to link this identity politics up with any new policies, which was why the hysteria his candidacy provoked was so unfounded, but the slightest hint that an era of Republican political dominance had not much benefited working- and middle-class Americans was so scandalous that it had to be shut down as soon as possible. Huckabee presented himself as someone with a chip on his shoulder, and happily contrasted his biography with that of his more privileged, loathed opponent in Mitt Romney. Huckabee had mastered the art of Republican class and education-based resentment politics well before Palin ever came on the national scene, but he forgot that this sort of resentment politics was not supposed to be used against other Republicans.
He largely ran as a “compassionate” conservative with the occasional nod to voters’ economic anxiety, but on key major policy issues Huckabee did line up with the Bush Era consensus in favor of mass immigration and free trade. He did dramatically change his immigration views and rhetoric overnight once he became a more competitive candidate, but this was not credible. For much of the campaign, Huckabee’s “actual agenda” at was in many respects indistinguishable in substance from Bushism, but he saw the political opportunity for tapping into dissatisfaction with the results of Bushism. Pawlenty seems eager to repeat Huckabee’s identity politics act, but unlike Huckabee he doesn’t seem eager to attack elites on the Republican side. “Sam’s Club Republican” rhetoric notwithstanding, Pawlenty seems to have no intention of appealing to this middle ground.
Update: Weigel goes so far as to say that Huckabee’s announcement signals the end of “compassionate” conservatism. We may hope.