The Face of Conservative Populism

by Brian Stewart

This afternoon at The King’s College in New York City, former governor Huckabee addressed a full hall in a wide-ranging discussion of public policy. Sporting polished black cowboy boots, Mr. Huckabee struck a tone of folksy humor mingled with Old Testament wrath to analyze the current state of the Republican party. During the last decade, the GOP had “violated every principle” it claimed to uphold. In its fiscal profligacy, including the last-ditch rescue of banks, the “inner circle” of the party had fostered an “axis of power” between Washington and Wall Street that threatened to exhaust the country’s resources. This was the tangled route by which the party “lost any sense of honor.” The free-spending ways of the recent past were not merely wrong-headed in fiscal terms, he intoned, but “morally wrong.” And now federal finances are in such disrepair that we can no longer be fairly thought of as “the world’s superpower.”

Huckabee flatly denied being a “pro-life liberal,” an accusation often made in certain quarters on the right. Not a trace of defensiveness could be detected on this point. To the contrary, the governor gave an all-out defense of his tax hikes while governor of Arkansas on the grounds that they were the only responsible course of action to repair state roads. He snorted with derision at “libertarians” who fail to recognize that “we don’t have a health-care crisis in this country, but a health crisis.” He spoke with passion and knowledge on the need for preventative care to bring down exorbitant costs. And then, without the least amount of prompting, he mustered a vigorous defense of Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity. This was the “art of governing,” he argued, rather than the cheap “science of campaigning.” He finished his call to a compassionate conservatism by echoing recent comments made by Governor Daniels touting prison reform. Invoking a “Biblical standard” of crime enforcement, he granted that criminals must be punished while stressing that the status quo needs to be replaced. Opposed though he is to the decriminalization of drugs, he endorses a more “hopeful,” therapeutic approach that would thwart the creation of “monsters” within our prison walls.

The governor was hardly less restrained when the subject turned to foreign policy. He warned of the dangers inherent in the role of “world policeman.” Invited to plead for cuts in defense spending, he delicately declined, but noted that combat operations in Afghanistan were futile and therefore constituted government “waste.” U.S. policy in Afghanistan, he hastened to add, was not exceptional in this regard. The specter haunting the U.S. is that of a broader overstretch. Sounding very much like George W. Bush as governor of Texas, Huckabee denounced the use of U.S. armed forces for any kind of nation-building. “Leave that to the Peace Corps,” he concluded. “The nation that most needs building is America.”

On that platform he will “serve God and man” if he chooses to run for president — a decision, the governor grinningly emphasized, that will be made at a time of his choosing.