Suppose you’re an undecided Republican voter, with mixed feelings about the big-name Republican presidential candidates. You respect John McCain, but he doesn’t look like a viable option — which is just as well since he bugged you with his crusade for speech-limiting campaign finance reform, and lost you with the immigration deal with Ted Kennedy.
Mitt Romney’s wowed you in the debates, but you can’t forget that while you agree with all his positions, he had strikingly different ones not too long ago. And you would prefer a nominee who has won more than just one political race in his life.
You love Rudy Giuliani’s crime-fighting record and 9/11 leadership, but the thought of a non-pro-life Republican nominee gives you pause, and the messy home life troubles you a bit.
You were very excited about Fred Thompson, and nearly fainted with anticipation when you saw his smackdown of Michael Moore. But lately you feel like you’re playing a character in Waiting for Godot, and you’re wondering if he got lost somewhere on the way to the announcement.
Those still shopping for a candidate could do a lot worse than former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who with the second-place finish in Ames is not merely now a “top tier” candidate, as Newt Gingrich recently declared, but arguably belongs in the middle of that first tier.
For four straight debates, Republicans have watched Huckabee and put him in the intriguing-longshot category. Smart guy, can turn an artful phrase or two, good executive experience, with one big drawback: Who’s actually going to vote for him?
But after his second-place finish at the Ames straw poll this past weekend, Huckabee can make the case that he’s the candidate social conservatives can unify behind, with signs of appeal well beyond the “religious Right.” And that’s just what he did in a meeting with reporters and bloggers at the Monocle restaurant just off Capitol Hill Wednesday afternoon.
Like many of his rivals, Huckabee brings his own deviations from conservative orthodoxy from the table. Ordinarily when a presidential candidate declares that he’s “for Main Street, not Wall Street” and laments that he doesn’t want his party to stand for “the CEO making $100 million instead of the guy who gets laid off because of that,” one’s reflexively response is “oh, go back the hair salon, John Edwards.” But these are Huckabee’s words.
Make no mistake, without many policy specifics, Huckabee talks like a populist who would bring a tear to the eye of Bob Shrum. When he talks about the need for a president who knows what it’s like to lose your job, “who can look into your eyes and know what it’s like to not know how you’re going to pay the rent, groceries, doctor’s visits,” it reminds one of that other former Arkansas governor, going on how much he feels someone’s pain.
And yet, to follow a Republican president who’s spent much of his second term under fire for being “out of touch,” Huckabee’s earnest emoting for the little guy might be a refreshing change of pace. Even during the better days of his administration, Bush has scored poorly on the “shares the concerns of people like you” poll question, suggesting that as a child of privilege, working-class Americans think he has little personal capacity to relate to their circumstances in hard time.
Hearing Huckabee refer to the Club for Growth as “The Club for Greed” is enough to make most free marketers take an angry spit-take. But opinion polls have shown for quite some time considerable national anxiety about the economy, despite a booming stock market and steady growth in the GDP. Huckabee’s rhetoric may match the times, and with a Fortune magazine cover declaring “Business Loves Hillary!” and detailing how Wall Street has filled her coffers, one may wonder how many times a Republican presidential candidate must come running to the rhetorical aid of corporate executives.
Huckabee’s populism comes out in odd ways at times — he says he doesn’t turn to the business page first, he turns to the sports page and the obituaries, and later says he his first step into a country club came at his ten-year class reunion — but he stands out among the GOP contenders as the one who could obliterate Democrats’ class-warfare instincts. In a match-up against Hillary Clinton, it’s easy to imagine Huckabee using Al Gore’s “I’m for the people, not the powerful” line against her.
While Huckabee has cut some taxes, he’s also raised taxes, including Arkansas’ gasoline tax — which he quickly points out was approved by 80 percent of state voters and he says, met a dire need. “Trucker’s magazine said we had the worst roads in the country,” Huckabee says. “Five years later, they said we had the most improved.” He points out that his state has a disproportionately high amount of miles of state-managed road, and a disproportionately low level of funding to take care of it. When Huckabee talks about spending money to invest in infrastructure — well, his line that “our infrastructure is the skeleton of our economy” sounds a little different after the Minnesota bridge collapse.
He answers foreign-policy queries like a governor — right-sounding generalities. On Iraq, while criticizing some of the postwar decisions (like deBaathification), he says he believes the surge is working, and cites not just the press accounts but personal conversation with a college friend, a colonel in the Army, who is working with General Petraeus. Asked what he would do differently today, he says he wants more diplomatic pressure on Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iraq’s neighbors. His preferred message: “We’ve got our finger in the dike, and we’re not going to keep it there forever. If it bursts, we’re not going to fix it. You guys can’t sit on the sidelines.”
The overall package is a unique Republican offering: a vague populist with a fresh face who has quietly accumulated ten years of executive experience. He’s a smooth communicator — folksy, but not too much so (it’s hard to imagine him responding to a question about lobbying for an abortion group with a Zen-like “the flies are buzzing”).
Shining in the spotlight like his Arkansas-shaped gold cuff links, this is Mike Huckabee’s moment.
— Jim Geraghty writes “The Campaign Spot” blog on National Review Online.