Since last Thursday evening, I've been involved in several concurrent arguments--with friends and bloggers belonging to several different audiences--about Mike Huckabee, and about his win in Iowa and what it does (or doesn't, or might, or might not) mean for his candidacy, for the Republican party, and for the current range of political possibilities in America. Yeah, I know, the usual overload which makes far more of the Iowa caucuses and their results than they could ever rationally mean. Still, it's been a great series of arguments; Henry Farrell and Laura McKenna have weighed in, as have Daniel Larison, Patrick Deneen, Rod Dreher and more, as well as a bunch of professional and personal friends who have a couple of bits to add. But as the New Hampshire primaries come upon us, I have to ask: is it all just a media-driven desire to speak and be heard, or really, is there something interesting about this man and his run for president? I mean, why care about Huckabee?
This is particularly relevant for me. I've never voted for a Republican candidate for president, and strongly doubt I would do so this year, even if Huckabee were the nominee. I carry a lot of social traditionalism and localism and religious conservatism around inside me, but I think I'm first and foremost an egalitarian and a social democrat; if the election were tomorrow, and I had to vote for a major party candidate (which I've only done twice in all the years I've been eligible to vote in a presidential election year), then it'd be a toss-up between Obama and Edwards, with Edwards probably getting the nod. Yes, yes, abortion and all that, but what about wages and health care and neighborhoods and schools? No Democrat--or Republican for that matter--is thinking about social justice exactly the way I would like, but there's a couple that are legitimately closer than others, and they aren't Huckabee. So why do I follow the man's campaign so obsessively?
Partly there's the religion factor, exacerbated by the fact that, in the last couple of months with a possibly angry Romney-Huckabee showdown looming in Iowa, this issue morphed partially into a "who will vote for a Mormon?" factor. I've said my piece on Romney's attempts to clarify his own position here; suffice to say that, unlike some of my co-religionists, I find it hard to credit Huckabee's success to him drumming up anti-Mormon fervor amongst presumably ignorant evangelical yokels. For one thing, Romney's hardly out of the race. I'll declare Romney over after he blows New Hampshire, South Carolina, and possibly even Michigan. I suspect that only then would the GOP establishment give up on him and turn to McCain if absolutely necessary to stop the--in their eyes--populist Christian moron that they think is Huckabee. So let's not go with the "the rabble have excluded a decent conservative Republican candidate solely for idiot anti-Mormon reasons" shtick...at least, not yet. For another thing, while I'll grant that a bunch of evangelicals probably turned out for anti-Mormon reasons, I suspect a whole lot more turned out because Huckabee speaks their language--not just evangelical and Protestant, but vaguely populist and filled with up-from-the-bootstraps resentments and pleas, with a dash of hick culture thrown in. Meanwhile, Romney talks the language of a CEO's pet robot from Jupiter (thanks for the hat tip, Laura!).
Partly, and more importantly, it's the populism factor. Now, let's be clear about something: Huckabee's populism and anti-elitism is far more a matter of attitude than of policy. When we see Huckabee outside of the populist hothouse and he (and Edwards) created in Iowa—as he moves full force into NH and beyond—we’ll probably see him (as Ross Douthat has predicted and hopes) start talking about how he’s actually a mainstream conservative, and he’ll drop a lot of the ambitious, quasi-populist stuff that used to move blue-collar Catholics and others back in the good old days to vote with a passion. I consider this terribly unfortunate, but almost a surety nonetheless. And he wouldn't be acting in making such a pivot: Huckabee isn't a "capital-P" Populists, because the social and economic world within which the Populist Party platform was a possibility is...well, if not definitely gone for good, then at least gone from the realms within which electoral success on the national level is available--and that is what this man, with his perfectly mortal and ordinary mix of heartfelt aspirations and venal ambitions, wants. (Of course, this is a deeper argument than a presidential contest; it's one that people like me, Caleb Stegall, Jeff Taylor and others have been kicking around for ages, often revolving around Wal-Mart and whether something at least resembling it is inevitable if you want to be an egalitarian in a globalized cash economy, or whether such a solution is in every way worse than the disease....Huckabee, of course, having been a good friend to Wal-Mart while he was governor of Arkansas.) But all that being acknowledged, I continue to insist--and this follows other old arguments, including my claim about the legitimate populist credibility of William Jennings Bryan, despite or maybe even alongside all his talk about nationalizing the railroads and other flirtations with Progressivism--that there can nonetheless be a "small-p" populism, a genuine interest in making life more livable for the non-elites out there, that co-exists with major party platforms and all their compromises. Maybe that makes me just a meliorist at at heart, though I hope not. Huckabee has a lot of crackpot conservative ideas (how a national sales tax could be truly progressive I've yet to have explained persuasively to me), but then again, he genuinely tried to make public education workable in an Arkansas under all sorts of financial and legal pressures, all while keeping the door open for home schoolers, school choice, and charter schools; he drew a line against Arkansas being the latest state to make itself addicted to the easy money promised (but rarely in full delivered) by advocates of state gambling, which is of course rarely anything more than a tax on the desperate and gullible; and so forth. A true defender of local authority and economic sovereignty? Er, no. But more populist than the venture capitalist from Massachusetts or the wanna-be Caesar from New York City? Definitely.
Finally, it's also partly about--or really, mostly about--what I'm looking for and hoping for in terms of America's political development. Of the race for president, I'm mostly, at this point, only moderately engaged; I'd say that ANY Republican presidential candidate--Huckabee, Romney, McCain, Giuliani, any of them--is probably better than 75% likely to suffer an ignominious defeat in 11 months, because George W. Bush has done so much to blow up what remained of the Reagan coalition. So that means there be some attempt to bring the madness in Iraq under control, and life will go on. But that's policy; what about what's happening outside the Beltway, particularly on the right. Ah, now that's some fascinating stuff. Is the Great, Long-Foretold-But-Just-As-Long-Avoided Conservative Crack-Up upon us. Ross and Matt Yglesias and others disagree, and I'm not enough of a political wonk to make my own predictions. But consider the options. What's the worst case scenario for a genuine "fusionism-still-works!" GOP partisan (say, George F. Will)? Huckabee gets the nominations and gets clobbered, and then what? Will downscale, rural white evangelicals fulfill the words of Thomas Frank, and quietly accept again their usual ignominious position in things? Maybe--but then again, maybe not. Maybe they'll instead try to develop a message to broaden their own little group of (mostly white, mostly Protestant, mostly lower-to-middle class) factions, picking up culturally concerned, economically populist and progressive, possibly nonwhite (lots of black anti-abortion evangelicals out there, remember) voters that in the past had stayed Democratic. No doubt it would take a few election cycles to happen, if it ever did, but what a triumph it would be for America's political landscape--for the first time in who knows how long, a genuinely (if only tentatively) Christian democratic option on the table! Some what it if went by the name of Republican: I could just tell myself that the party of Lincoln has rediscovered itself, and I'd have someone to support. And if that doesn't happen--if Huckabee gets destroyed by the NRO-Club-of-Growth-neocon establishment before he gets even close to the nomination? Well, frankly, who cares? Completely aside from whomever becomes president, if a Huckabee candidacy could drive an even very small, pseudo-populist stake into the heart of the by-now-incoherent Reagan coalition, that would open some eyes to the reality of the stifling deal many socially conservative voters have been obliged to swallow for years now, maybe even switch some votes. Even that result would get me declaring the 2008 election season a fabulous success.
Look--unless you're a single-issue or an all-but-single-issue "seamless garment of life" culture-war voter (in which case you have my respect, but also my complaints), the proper "family values" as well a populist vote right now is probably Edwards. But in the meantime, you've got lower-class and struggling middle-class social conservatives are out there, talking a populist language without anyone from their side of the culture war promising to do anything about it. Edwards could try to reach out to these folks, and probably would connect with at least a few of them given the chance, but the progressive cultural/social commitments of powerful factions in the Democratic party make it unlikely that Edwards go very far in that direction (and do be fair, I'm not sure I would want him to). And yet, their populist longings, even if not articulated that way, remain. Suddenly, here’s Huckabee: folksy, anti-abortion, an up-from-his-bootstraps hick who is occasionally willing to bash Bush and Wall Street and ring the populist, let’s-help-out-the-poor-a-little drum. So they vote for him--and maybe, just maybe, the Republican party changes, even if just a little. That's what I see. In the end, I’m not a Huckabee supporter, but I am a fan—because so long as we’re stuck with this infuriating two-party corporate system, cracking up one at least one lousy coalition (the walking-dead GOP one) is, in the long-run, better than nothing.