Monday, May 16, 2011

The Huckabee that Might Have Been

Mike Huckabee's announcement on Saturday that he would not run for president in 2012 isn't a great loss, either to Republican party prospects or to America's political options. In the former case, he still would have faced all the opposition and condescension which came at him from the Republican establishment in his 2008 run, and he wouldn't have been able to beat Obama, not with the moderate business Republican class fleeing him or at least staying home, as they almost surely would have done. And in the latter case, Huckabee today, after years in the Fox News hothouse, is no longer someone who is presenting particularly original (if sometimes off-the-wall) solutions or directions to the American electorate, as he once was. He's found a well-remunerated niche on Fox, he's building a house in Florida, he's speaking his mind, he's done.

Which is too bad--because while the loss of Huckabee 2011 isn't much to mourn, the loss of Huckabee 2007, years ago, is truly unfortunate. Ross Douthat's column yesterday explains why:

[Huckabee will] 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.

But few of these people are members of the American elite. Call someone a “centrist” or a “moderate” in the salons of Washington or New York, and everyone will assume that you’re talking about a deficit hawk who supports open borders, or a Republican C.E.O. who writes checks to Planned Parenthood. Among our leadership class, centrism invariably means some combination of big-business conservatism and social progressivism--the politics of pro-choice Republicans, hedge fund Democrats and Michael Bloomberg independents....

[H]is candidacy illuminated a path that more politicians should take. We live in an age of economic stagnation and social crisis, and the two are intimately connected. The collapse of the two-parent family and unfettered low-skilled immigration have made America more stratified. The Wall Street-Washington axis really did drive the country into a ditch. For all his faults, Mike Huckabee knew how to talk about these problems. Now we need leaders with ideas for what do about them.

Douthat missed including Huckabee's own best line in describing the "moderates" of our business-centric political class, and particularly of his own party: he saw in them a "new brand of libertarianism", reflecting "a social liberalism and economic conservatism", and often a "heartless, callous, soulless type of economic conservatism" at that. Which I think is, frankly, pretty accurate. (Just give a tip of the hat to the ideological consistency of Rand Paul, as he bravely notes that creating a system premised upon the idea of empowering people by ensuring them a right to health care is functionally equivalent to treating human beings as property.)

I was always fond of Huckabee, both as a governor of Arkansas and then later as a presidential candidate. He had a smart record in how he responded to some truly complicated problems, dealing with education, health, immigration, and more. He was not a basher of government, nor did he have a Pavlovian anti-tax response to every possible suggestion that the government might have to play a role in addressing the nutrition of children, the solidity of marriages, the cleanliness of the environment, as so forth. He stood up against the state gambling lobby; he crafted the best compromises he could in conjunction with the need to consolidate school districts; he thought limited cap-and-trade restrictions ought to be put into place to combat greenhouse gas emissions; and he was almost unique amongst nationally known Republicans to have never trafficked in mindless, paranoid attacks upon President Obama's religious faith or Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaigns. Or at least--he was unique in that regard, until the need to keep audiences tuned into to his talk show got the better of him, and he started cranking out books like his latest, Simple Government, which, as I paged through it a couple of nights ago at a local bookstore, seemed to have been written by an almost entirely different person than the conservative quasi-populist of four years ago.

Douthat has mourned what he calls "the tragedy of Sarah Palin", a presumably talented and smart political negotiator who let herself embrace her own worst caricature. I would mourn a smaller, but I think more ideologically significant tragedy--the loss of Mike Huckabee, circa 2007-2008. What if Fred Thompson had never wasted his own time and the airwaves of South Carolina attacking Huckabee, his only rival for the hard-core Southern evangelical vote, and Mike had managed to beat Mcain there? What if perhaps no more than 10,000 Republican primary voters in different states hadn't been turned off by Mike's populist rhetoric, and instead had given it some though, and enabled him to win Missouri and Oklahoma, which he could have used to springboard into further contests? What if there'd been a brokered convention--indeed, what if Huckabee had been the GOP nominee in 2008? What would have Huckabee--a fellow who had campaigned against big business and Wall Street and "the establishment" throughout 2007--have done as a presidential candidate when the financial meltdown began in the fall of 2008? At the very least, wouldn't it have opened the door for Obama to have staked out more populist, more regulatory responses, than what we ultimately got? Even if Huckabee had lost--and he would have lost to Obama, there is no doubt about that; much as I kind of like the guy, and admire is one-time moral communitarianism and economic populism, I wouldn't have voted for him--a rhetorical foundation might well have been laid that would have led to a very different (and far less paranoid) sort of anti-government response than we've seen over the past couple of years. Huckabee, in losing in 2008, could have done more to create a better balance in our perpetual struggles over government power and spending than anything we've seen sense.

Of course, that's all speculation. And it's doubly groundless speculation when you look at Mike Huckabee today. Perhaps it doesn't amount to tragedy--but it is a small loss, nonetheless.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I thought that Matt Yglesias got this about right, especially in that Douth was most right about Huckabee when noting that in the end he just had tricks and crank ideas- nothing serious at all, and no indication that he was serious about learning.
That was true of Palin, too- I see no reason to think she was smart- cunning and ruthless, maybe, but no indication of smart.