Quotes of the day

“Most Iowa Republicans have been expecting this for two years,” says Jamie Johnson, a pastor and broadcaster who served as former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum’s Iowa coalitions director in 2012. “There’s a large group of Iowans who were heartbroken when he didn’t run in 2012. It’s very personal, what Mike Huckabee has with them, and it can’t be quantified. It’s almost a spiritual thing. I think it has to do with their Christian faith and the fact that he has been a pastor.”…

“I can tell you, I took Rick Santorum across the state three years ago,” Johnson says. “People loved Huckabee. They liked Santorum. There was never a heart connection between them and Santorum the way there’d been for Huckabee.”…

The dream of a GOP nominee who’s a social conservative is as strong as it’s been since 2008, and Huckabee’s teasing remarks have only stoked it. But the final problem with 2016 is that none of the GOP “establishment” candidates discussed among conservatives are as obviously flawed as McCain in 2008, or Romney in 2012.

“Jeb Bush is not a John McCain,” says Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Center, who organized the January 2012 meeting of conservative leaders. “Jeb is actually, frankly, the most conservative member of the Bush family, apart from this dogmatic stance he has taken in favor of Common Core.”

***

Huckabee’s strong credibility with social conservatives could help provide a buffer against attacks on his record from the right. He may need to tread into politically dangerous territory to keep the base riled up, however. In the few years since his last ran for office, gay marriage has gone from hot button issue to quiet inevitability. A number of Republicans have sunk their careers with the wrong sound bite on issues like abortion, rape, and birth control.

Huckabee has not always handled this dynamic gracefully. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus publicly rebuked him after he told a crowd that “[t]he Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control, because they cannot control their libido.”

To Mair, comments like these are a red flag.

“His base may love some of the things he’s likely to say, but there’s a significant probability that everyone else once again concludes he’s an insufficiently serious person to be allowed to win the nomination,” she said.

***

Instead of being the amusing gadfly that helps the frontrunner to win, he will presumably be trying to establish himself as a major contender. That always makes a candidate less inclined to “let it rip.” In 2008, he was the insurgent upstart who overcame a vastly better-funded Romney in Iowa. Now he is the one that the other lesser-known candidates will be seeking to defeat there. That is probably going to make for a more defensive and scripted campaign that could make the second Huckabee run a much drearier affair than anyone imagines possible. He might strongly dislike one candidate or the other, but the vote is going to be split so many different ways that Huckabee’s contempt and clever barbs will matter much less.

That leaves us with the campaign’s overall entertainment value, which I suspect will also be significantly reduced. As Huckabee has conformed to the Fox News mold, he is still capable of delivering a few punchlines, but he has otherwise become very predictable. There are only so many zingers and substitutes for serious argument that a candidate can fall back on before the entire act seems tired and unappealing. That may please his loyal viewers, but it doesn’t give the rest of us much to look forward to in the primaries.

***

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee announced this weekend that he’s quitting his Fox News show while he thinks about whether to run for president again. If recent history is any guide, there will be space in the GOP primaries for a Huck-style populist social conservative; Rick Santorum filled it in 2012, Huckabee himself in 2008, Alan Keyes in 2000. Another throughline knits together these disparate pols: hostility to libertarians.

Here’s Huckabee in May 2008:

“The greatest threat to classic Republicanism is not liberalism; it’s this new brand of libertarianism, which is social liberalism and economic conservatism, but it’s a heartless, callous, soulless type of economic conservatism because it says ‘look, we want to cut taxes and eliminate government. If it means that elderly people don’t get their Medicare drugs, so be it. If it means little kids go without education and healthcare, so be it.’ Well, that might be a quote pure economic conservative message, but it’s not an American message. It doesn’t fly. People aren’t going to buy that, because that’s not the way we are as a people. That’s not historic Republicanism. Historic Republicanism does not hate government; it’s just there to be as little of it as there can be.”…

This antipathy, of course, makes all the sense in the world, since Mike Huckabee’s applied ideology is often the opposite to that of libertarians.

***

And the answer, I think, is that on some level smart Republicans understand that populism is as much a problem for the party as plutocracy.

Yes, Mitt Romney’s tendency to toady to superrich donors and entrepreneurs — coming on the heels of George W. Bush’s high-end tax cuts — certainly saddled the GOP with a plutocratic image problem. But what about its tendency to flatter culturally alienated middle-class Americans by dismissing evolutionary biology, by mocking professors and “experts” of all kinds, and by pandering to the prejudices of a certain kind of ill-informed, reactionary religious believer?

The fact is that the Republican Party has long since become a bizarre only-in-America hybrid of fat cats and rednecks.

Deep down Republicans know that while a Huckabee candidacy might help address the image problems associated with the first half of that equation, he’d make those wrapped up with the second half far worse.

***

Jeb Bush seems uninterested in, or incapable of, drawing on conservative identity politics. If anything he shows a thinly veiled disdain for anything that smacks of pandering to the base…

Huckabee couldn’t be more different. He is a pandering prodigy, no doubt in part because it stems from sincere conviction. He got his start as a Baptist minister and televangelist and is fluent and comfortable spinning down-home charm. Much as Ronald Reagan did, he annoys many of his critics because he refuses to live up to liberal stereotypes. He’s neither bitter nor cranky, and he’s often wittier than the very detractors who think big-city liberals have a monopoly on political wit. “I’m a conservative,” he famously said, “but I’m not mad at everybody over it.”…

Just as Bush is soaking up big money, Huckabee may soak up evangelical voters. He may not get all of them; Christian conservatives are homogenous only in the imaginations of those who fear them. And his campaign could self-destruct or fizzle. But for now, he poses the biggest threat to Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Ben Carson and others who desperately need grass-roots social conservatives. Cruz seems to be betting that he can be a unifying standard-bearer on the right. The more successful Huckabee is, the less possible that becomes.

Huckabee still has little chance of becoming president, but he has a good chance of deciding who the GOP nominee will be. If he decides to attack his competitors on the right, he could serve as a blocking tackle for Bush (and keep alive the prospects of a Vice President Huckabee). If he takes dead aim at the establishmentarians, he’ll likely knock that smile off Bush’s face.

***

During my time at Fox News, I appeared on Gov. Huckabee’s show a handful of times. We always had fiery but friendly exchanges. And behind the scenes, even more than in front of the camera, Gov. Huckabee was always affable and downright, double-me-over funny. He’s simply a hoot. Our political environment today is decisively un-funny and the state of the world is downright tragic, but legions of stiff shirt, stiff personality politicians aren’t helping the matter. Barack Obama broke through the fog, and the expectations of the status quo political machine, thanks to his simply winning, charismatic personality. Huckabee is gifted with a similar charisma…

But personal dynamism alone isn’t the only reason Democrats should worry about a Huckabee candidacy. At a time when more and more politicians never open their mouths before sticking their fingers in the wind, Mike Huckabee has remained amazingly, devoutly principled. Now I think it’s also the case that many of those devout principles are precisely what would doom a Huckabee candidacy, especially in a general election. His extremist views about gay marriage and abortion are wildly out of touch with the majority of American voters. Even in a Republican primary, where voters notoriously lean hard right, Huckabee may have trouble reconciling his unyielding views with the emerging majority of more libertarian, live-and-let-live Republicans…

And perhaps the most dangerous thing about Mike Huckabee is that some of those firm beliefs, those clear convictions, appeal to liberal voters. In a post-Occupy moment, when even Democrats are desperate to strike the chord of economic populism—fueling, for instance, the clamoring for Elizabeth Warren to mount a challenge Hillary Clinton—Huckabee spouts populist rhetoric with ease…

In campaigns that are more about more about ads and appearances and personality, and sadly less about substance—even though substantive disagreements exist and are key—the sense that Huckabee is a Republican who knows there are poor people, knows how to talk about them, and apparently wants to do something to help could be very appealing.

***

The most fascinating question to my mind is which of the other viable 2016 GOP candidates Mike Huckabee will dislike the most. He is a capable assassin. In 2008, his distaste for Romney was obvious — and often hilarious. Like a lot of Evangelicals who grew up on books describing Mormonism as a “cult,” Huckabee couldn’t restrain himself from making less-than-respectful comments about Latter-Day Saints theology. He considered Romney “presumptuous and arrogant,” and in the most memorable line of the 2008 GOP primary, said Mitt looked more “like the guy that fired you” than the one who hires you. Huckabee did more than anyone to create a McCain comeback, certainly more than McCain himself.

In this way, Huckabee has a kind of veto power. He’s able to prevent his opponents from consolidating social conservatives as part of a primary coalition. Who will be the next victim? Huckabee has a well-documented dislike of libertarianism. He considers The Wall Street Journal editorial board and Club for Growth’s vision of a GOP purified of social conservatism and social concern a “heartless, callous, soulless” version of conservatism.

Does that make him a natural enemy of libertarian Rand Paul? Or a foe of Jeb Bush, the kind of establishment Republican the WSJ actually likes? Your guess is as good as mine.

But for those who enjoy the sport of politics, a possible Huckabee candidacy is the best news so far of the nascent 2016 cycle. Get in this thing, Mike. And let it rip.

***

Americans may have a cultural distrust of large government in general, but polls and election returns suggest they still favor those parts of state activity that benefit them personally…

The libertarian might say that this argument is liberal in Republican clothing — but, again, it’s a matter of what kind of society people are trying to preserve. Huckabee would likely not use the state for progressive causes as the Democrats would, but for conservative ones. And what makes him such a compelling candidate is his unique ability to articulate that right-wing vision.

It was his debate performances that pushed him to the front of the 2008 pack, when he gave a defense of marriage, life and biblical teachings that suggested he was a Christian without being angry about it. Most Republicans who talk about social conservatism come off as either fanatical or disingenuous. Huckabee seemed normal. Such an ability to sell conservative ideas with a glimmer of humanity hasn’t been seen since Ronald Reagan

As such, Huckabee enters this race with a key asset: He’s a conservative statesman. His history alone ought to guarantee him top-tier status.

***