The Huckster could pull it off: Why the Beyoncé-hating, gay-baiting Mike Huckabee may go the distance in 2016

His opening is narrow, and Huckabee is doomed if he leans too hard on social issues -- but he's already adapting

Published May 5, 2015 4:02PM (EDT)

  (AP/Susan Walsh)
(AP/Susan Walsh)

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the distant runner-up to Sen. John McCain in the 2008 GOP nomination contest, announced his second presidential bid today. What are his chances? Narrow, since each candidate's chances are narrow, because 20 people are running. Huckles may come to rue passing the opportunity to run in 2012, when he would have had a decent shot at the nomination. (Or maybe he won't, because he was making a ton of money.)

When Huckabee quit his lucrative Fox News show earlier this year to explore a bid, it didn't seem like he had a whole lot of creativity in the tank. He was going to go full culture warrior, explicitly aligning himself with the identity politics of redneck America. He released a silly book titled God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy and spent weeks engaged in a one-sided public feud with Beyonce and Jay-Z. Big Gay's takeover of the means of pizza production also provided Huckabee a few more opportunities to warn the gays' nefarious end game.

Railing about the gays and the liberals' broader war against religious people in general is good stuff in a GOP primary, but it's not enough in this primary. Huckabee was able to cruise to victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, but he didn't have much competition: there was Fred Thompson, whose campaign that cycle amounted to an extended gaze at his watch, and Mitt Romney, whose Mormonism didn't exactly jibe with evangelicals. In Iowa this cycle, he'll be going against eight or nine well-known candidates with plausible connections to social conservatives. In other words: if he centers his campaign solely on social conservative issues as part of a strategy hinged on winning Iowa, he'd risk writing himself off early, before he has the chance to sop up delegates from friendly, down-calendar Southern states. He needs to add another component, and preferably one that hasn't already been taken.

The best thing that's happened to Huckabee 2016, then, was Chris Christie's decision to thrust Social Security into the policy debate last month. Christie introduced a plan to raise the retirement age for future beneficiaries and introduce sharp means-testing to the program. (As in, to welfarize the program.) Jeb Bush has also endorsed raising the retirement age, as have Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Raising the retirement age is fast becoming a litmus test among fiscal conservatives, which provides a real opening for a Republican to come along and tell the fiscal conservatives to buzz off. Social Security is an extraordinarily popular program among rank-and-file Republican voters, and they don't want to see the program cut.

Huckabee took that opening aggressively. Shortly after Christie released his plan, Huckabee harshly shot back against it:

"I don't know why Republicans want to insult Americans by pretending they don't understand what their Social Security program and Medicare program is," Huckabee said in response to a question about Christie's proposal to gradually raise the retirement age and implement a means test.

Huckabee said his response to such proposals is "not just no, it's you-know-what no."

"I'm not being just specifically critical of Christie but that's not a reform," he said. "That's not some kind of proposal that Republicans need to embrace because what we are really embracing at that point is we are embracing a government that lied to its people--that took money from its people under one pretense and then took it away at the time when they started wanting to actually get what they have paid for all these years."

Fast forward a couple weeks later, and that language about protecting Social Security -- and Medicare -- features prominently in Huckabee's "pre-announcement announcement" video:

Combine the hostility to social insurance cuts with his rage against trade agreements like TPP, and Huckabee has the beginnings of -- for lack of a better term -- a "populist" conservative economic message.

There is space here. Why haven't any of the other Republican candidates occupied it? Because the joint attack from fiscal conservative groups like the Club for Growth and business Republicans from Wall Street and the Chamber of Commerce will hound them to the ends of the earth. The "advantage" Huckabee holds is that those entities already hate him -- especially the Club for Growth, which has been attacking his record of big-government conservatism for decades and is even releasing an ad to coincide with the launch of his latest campaign. Huckabee's relationship with fiscal and business conservatives is roughly analogous to Rand Paul's with foreign policy hawks: they will never trust him. Whereas Paul will still pathetically try to earn their trust anyway, though, Huckabee could incorporate that hatred into into an anti-elite message and platform.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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