Mike Huckabee drew roaring cheers from supporters on Tuesday as the latest entrant in a sprawling field of Republican presidential candidates by declaring himself the guardian of so-called entitlement programs, warning, “Let them end their own congressional pensions, not your Social Security!”…

In defending the programs, Mr. Huckabee used fiery language more commonly aligned with the populist sentiments of Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts. Washington, he said in a video announcing his candidacy, “has done enough lying and stealing. I’ll never rob seniors of what our government promised them and even forced them to pay for.”…

And the issue could expose a structural gulf within the Republican Party. On one side are the party’s wealthy donors, whose views on reducing entitlements are helping shape the positions taken by establishment candidates, and on the other are the less affluent voters whose support candidates will ultimately need in a crowded field…

“He’s the first Republican presidential candidate to lay down the gauntlet on economic populism,” Ms. Conway said, adding that Mr. Huckabee has relatively little to lose given that he does not have major donors.

***

“There are some who propose that to save the safety nets like Medicare and Social Security, we ought to chop off the payments for the people who have faithfully had their paychecks and pockets picked by the politician, promising them that their money would be waiting for them when they were old and sick,” said Huckabee. “My friend, you were forced to pay for Social Security and Medicare. For 50 years, the government grabs the money from our paychecks and says it’ll be waiting for us when we turn 65. If Congress wants to take away someone’s retirement, let them end their own congressional pensions, not your Social Security.”

As with a lot of the speech, the words hung together splendidly but the math was TBD. Congressional pensions are far more attractive than plain old Social Security–members can start cashing out at age 55, for example. Their total cost quivers in the shadow of Social Security, which represents close to $900 billion of yearly government spending. The Huckabee line sounded fair, though, and it got at a truth that the GOP’s economic libertarians can’t stand. Even among conservative voters, Social Security is popular…

Yet the club of Republicans who want no changes to the retirement program can fit on a paddleboat. Huckabee’s intellectual partner of the moment is Donald Trump, who has told audiences that he wants to grow the economy so fast that no entitlement would need to be reduced. “People have been paying in for years,” he said last month. “They’re gonna cut Social Security. They’re gonna cut Medicare. They’re gonna cut Medicaid. I’m the one saying that’s saying I’m not gonna do that! I’m gonna make us so rich you don’t have to do those things.”

***

Since his last run for the presidency, Huckabee has hosted a national radio show and television show, and he’s endorsed all sorts of interesting products, including “secret biblical cures for cancer” to, no doubt, some unfortunate and desperate people. Because, Huckabee, like all of those selfish plutocrats he likes to denounce, is out to make a buck…

Kasie Hunt of NBC News asked if Huckabee might be seen as the GOP’s Bernie Sanders. Quite the opposite, actually. Sanders advocates a set of purified beliefs that drive contemporary Democratic Party grassroots politics. As a political tool, Sanders can be useful in making Hillary look reasonable (and perhaps even fresher). Huckabee, on the other hand, is what liberals in the media imagine a strong Republican candidate might look like…

[W]ho exactly is proposing we chop off [entitlement] payments to people who have faithfully paid into the system for years? There is no mainstream conservative in this country who advocates for Washington to eliminate benefits already promised to citizens. This is the same dishonest argument you hear whenever there’s talk of entitlement reform. Almost every plan offers an element of choice, allowing people to voluntarily enter into a new deal with government, or it changes the parameters of entitlements for future generations.

Now, I confess, that if Huckabee was serious about being president rather than simply running a vanity campaign, this sort of thing would matter far more. But the media will almost certainly use Huckabee as an example of how conservatives should be talking about poverty, inequality and entitlements, because his rhetoric will often be indistinguishable from what we hear on the Left. But America already has a party tasked with making that case, do we really need two?

***

Mr. Huckabee’s challenge will be overcoming his record of support for larger government after the record government expansions of the Obama years. Between 1997 and 2005 Arkansas’s per capita state and local tax burden rose by nearly 50%. In 2008 the Club for Growth lambasted his support as Governor for higher taxes on income, sales, gas, tobacco, the Internet and even nursing beds.

He also hurt himself by endorsing energy cap and trade—which he has since renounced—as well as the FAIR tax that would replace the income and payroll taxes with a 30% national sales tax. This has appeal on first pitch but voters soon figure out that they’d get the sales tax and never lose the income tax. Mr. Huckabee’s attacks in 2008 on income inequality, income-tax rate cuts, and George W. Bush’s foreign policy gave him a fillip in the media but turned off many mainstream primary voters…

Aside from repealing ObamaCare, Mr. Huckabee has no answer of his own on entitlements, though they are steadily consuming more of the federal budget and national GDP. Entitlements on autopilot inevitably mean tax increases. Meanwhile, he’s stalwart for ethanol and farm subsidies.

***

“I say this as someone who loves him, honestly how many times have you ever been to a Republican party announcement speech and in the first ten minutes the candidate spent most of their time defending entitlement spending. When’s the last time you heard that?” [radio host Steve Deace] asked. “In the first half of the speech, we haven’t heard about cutting taxes, we haven’t heard about defeating Islamic Jihad, we haven’t heard about life, we haven’t heard about marriage, we haven’t heard about religious freedom.”…

“I put my livelihood and credibility on the line for Mike,” he said. “This is a new cycle, a different environment, and the issues are not the same. For example, defending the welfare state was not one of Mike’s prominent positions in 2008.”…

“As I said on my show I don’t believe these statements will serve him well in this primary, and I also substantively disagree with him. The welfare state is operating at a $128 trillion cash-flow deficit the next two decades,” he continued. “I don’t just disagree with that, but I think it’s immoral and awful public policy that put us in the debt hole we’re currently in. I hope Mike reconsiders what he’s saying here.”

***

Is Mike Huckabee running for the Republican presidential nomination or applying for a job at Vox?…

Forget for a moment that Huckabee once seemed to recognize the necessity of Paul Ryan-style entitlement reform in order to save America from economic catastrophe. Huckabee’s kicker is another example of a line a liberal blogger might use — and, in case it has to be stated, that’s not a compliment.

Whatever the merit of ending congressional pensions, it will do almost nothing to solve our long-term debt crisis. Only reforming our entitlement programs, which are embedded with over $80 trillion of unfunded liabilities, will…

Nonetheless, he can still hurt the GOP by adding a Republican voice to the left’s attack on the eventual Republican nominee, particularly on entitlement reform.

***

Whereas Romney pandered to seniors, Huckabee actively supports their vision of a gerontocratic welfare state, with support for the children and grandchildren of these beneficiaries. It’s of a piece with his former Arkansas governorship—where he signed health care legislation for uninsured children and funded education programs for low-income students—and it’s also why he’s defended the Social Security disability program. “To assume that anybody who is disabled is really fraudulent, I think that’s an insult to a person,” he said to reporters on Wednesday. “You should make the government prove that person isn’t in need rather than the person having to.”…

The irony in all of this is that, far more than libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul, Huckabee represents an untapped constituency in modern American politics: white, rural, traditional, and nationalistic, but also generous with benefits for children and the elderly. As a policy perspective, it makes more sense than the GOP position of small government, unrestrained markets, and social conservatism, which exposes families to the invisible hand without protection from its capriciousness.

Seventy-five years ago, this would have been the Dixie branch of the New Deal coalition. Today, this kind of coalition is a mainstay in European politics—where center-right parties support a kind of conservative social democracy—but largely absent from America. Here, it lacks a place in either party. Republicans are too hostile to social spending while Democrats—who represent the so-called “undeserving” poor—are both too diverse and too permissive on social issues such as immigration, marriage, and abortion rights. In Huckabee, these voters have a candidate. They just don’t have a party.

***

Huckabee’s do-(almost)-nothing stance on entitlement reform reflects the GOP consensus. He’s just more explicit about it than most. It’s really only potential 2016er Chris Christie — with his call for cutting retirement pay for wealthier seniors — who seems to be the odd man out…

Huckabee clearly intends seniors to be the rock upon which he builds his candidacy. In the “Seniors” section of his campaign website, he promises to fight for the “earned benefits” of Social Security and Medicare — perhaps forgetting that a typical middle-class, one-earner couple retiring in 2030 will receive $1.3 million in lifetime Medicare and Social Security benefits, having paid in just under $500,000. Huckabee then attacks ObamaCare as a welfare program that diverts $700 billion from Medicare and fosters “government dependency.” Entitlements for me and mine but not for thee and thine.

The politics of this strategy are debatable. (Though it surely doesn’t help attract younger voters!) But regardless, it makes for simply awful public policy. Future safety net spending increases on older Americans need to be reduced…

If today’s GOP-leaning seniors want their grandkids to grow up in an America that can better take care of the truly needy — young and old — and pay its bills, they’ll reject Huckabee’s selfish populism.

***

The fact is that a lot of people who consider themselves Republicans who don’t have advanced degrees, fellowships, or work in conservative policy agree with Mike Huckabee about this sort of thing. There are plenty of people who consider themselves Republicans because of abortion and guns who are still largely sympathetic to arguments that free trade and free markets hurt American workers. Not a majority, not even a plurality, but enough to give Huckabee a boost. “That telegenic and likable but inconveniently socially conservative political survivor can’t possibly be a factor because he’s suspicious of international trade deals and Social Security cuts” is the sort of thing a lot of people in politics and media say without realizing how nonsensical it is.

Mike Huckabee’s message is essentially a tribal one, not a coherent or consistent philosophy. It’s a timid, cynical agenda wrapped in a hodge-podge of faux-populist status quo Pepperidge Farm Remembers nostalgia. It plays wonderfully with Huckabee’s tribe, and decently well outside of it (even to the point that many of those who disagree with him find him endearing). Remember: three short years ago we were wondering whether a sweater-vested Rick Santorum, someone whose throwback policy views are generally identical to Huckabee’s without any of the charming packaging, could actually win Ohio. Of course those views placed within a person with a preacher’s gift for retail could make political noise. And that’s actually more of a problem for conservatives than it is for the Republican Party as a whole…

Conservatives have a recurring waking nightmare about what happens when non-conservatives call themselves conservatives while doing not-conservative stuff, and the resulting fallout as the media and the country blame conservatism for Republican failures. They could easily live that nightmare again if they underestimate Huckabee’s brand of politics, particularly if they’re of the mindset that the Midwestern voters will look askance for him for his failure to back means testing and Medicare premium support. If conservatives can’t beat that throwback faux-populism with a group of dynamic younger politicians, then they might find themselves needing to decide next year whether they’d be more comfortable with Mike Huckabee or Jeb Bush.

***

***