A Mike Huckabee presidential campaign could be the Republican establishment’s nightmare. His candidacy would combine upfront social conservatism with an economic message targeted at the middle-class and struggling wage-earners rather than at the party’s lobbyist and donor elites. Unfortunately, it seems more likely that Huckabee will emerge as an ally of the establishmentthough one disguised as a critic.
Huckabee has a chance to be a serious presidential contender. He is immensely likeable, has a lengthy record as a political executive, a preexisting base among social conservatives, and an unaffected manner in talking about people who are struggling to get by. The problem is that Huckabee’s support of a national sales tax (the FairTax) and his habit of engaging in identity politics gestures makes it difficult for him to win over voters outside his evangelical base. Huckabee could have become an evangelical conservative Ronald Reagan, but he often seems content to take the easier (but still lucrative) role of a conservative evangelical Jesse Jackson. This tells us that he’s perhaps more interested in accruing profit than being president.
If Huckabee does run as a candidate of conservative evangelical identity politics, he and the Republican establishment would be enemies only on the surface. Elite disdain of Huckabee as stupid or unsophisticated (which is the opposite of the truth) works as advertising for Huckabee’s intended audience. The contempt of the elites testifies to Huckabee’s courage and authenticity. The result? More money in Huckabee’s coffers.
At the same time, Huckabee’s support for the FairTax and his identity politics cultural positioning repulses the key “somewhat conservative” voters who value policy prudence and electability. Those are also the voters that determine who gets the Republican presidential nomination. A successful populist conservatism has to combine evangelical voters with a large share of moderately conservative voters in order to have a serious chance at the Republican nomination.
If Huckabee runs an identity politics campaign, both he and the Republican establishment can get what they want. Huckabee can make money by selling books to his base; the Republican establishment can afford to lose the vote of most conservative evangelical voters as long as those voters don’t ally with another large segment of the electorate. If Huckabee can dominate among conservative evangelical votes but only conservative evangelical voters, it is less likely that an anti-establishment candidate can assemble a winning coalition. It is like a rivalry between two pro wrestlers: They might talk about how much they hate each other, but the hostility is staged to draw ratings and mutual profit.
But even if we were to take seriously his political ambitions, Huckabee (or at least the Huckabee we have seen so far), is not a plausible alternative to the establishment. For one, Huckabee’s FairTax would be a middle-class tax increase. A populist conservative, on the other hand, could explain how to cut taxes on working families. Populist conservatives would also need to show that while Huckabee can talk with some eloquence about the struggles of a single mother, he’ll follow that with meandering, bizarre stories about students and their desks rather than conservative policy solutions. Populist conservatives need a plan that can give that single mother the opportunity to buy secure, market-oriented health insurance. Huckabee’s immigration policy is also unconvincing: He has come out for the “Rubio-Corker-Hoeven” approach (which is also the Republican establishment’s approach) even though this policy would vastly increase future low-skill immigration even though such future immigration would hurt the lowest-skilled among America’s current workers.
In the 2012 cycle, we saw multiple Republican candidates surge in the polls and then crash. Huckabee would enter with a larger reservoir of goodwill than any of those 2012 candidates. But the truth is that Huckabee often has offered his own bad ideas, no ideas, or the establishment’s bad ideas. If Huckabee chooses to run an identity politics campaign and retains the lion’s share of evangelical support, then the victory of the Republican establishment is virtually assured.
A populist conservative politics that wins over Huckabee-inclined voters will have to be careful, patient, and thoughtful. It will have to acknowledge where Huckabee is right in diagnoses while pointing out the ways that Huckabee has been wrong in his prescriptions. Even more, a populist conservatism will have to offer real solutions for voters who have been let down by the establishments of both partiesand by Mike Huckabee.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.