Can Mike Huckabee Really Work That Conservative Populist Magic In 2016?

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It’s no secret that white non-college educated voters have become a solidly pro-Republican demographic category. In the last three presidential elections, these voters tilted to the GOP by an average of 22 points. That margin ballooned to 30 percent in the 2014 midterms.

This phenomenon has been a constant source of frustration for, and agonized discussion among, Democrats, who feel a sort of moral responsibility for appealing to the white working class, its bulwark for so many decades, even if they are convinced gains elsewhere offset these losses (as they increasingly do given the shrinking percentage of white voters who do not go to college).

Among Republicans, this (in historical terms) surprising “base” constituency is more often than not viewed as a bonanza attributable to liberal mistakes rather than a tribute to the broad-based appeal of conservative policies, though GOP pols dating back to Richard Nixon have obsessively worked this vein with a combination of appeals to economic self-interest and to cultural affinity. And if Democrats sometimes feel guilty for shirking the white working class while pursuing upscale voters, Republicans know in their hearts they’ve often used racial appeals — subliminal and not-so-subliminal — to compete for less affluent white folks.

What’s been missing for a good long while in the GOP is any serious effort to do what Nixon did: make Republican economic policies working-class-friendly. But now, as Democrats have more or less in concert decided to struggle towards a “populist” economic message that can win back some of these voters, Republicans are waking up to the same necessity.

The disconnect between the economic policies of the GOP and the interests of their most reliable voters has been a recurring theme for the self-styled “Reform Conservatives,” who often borrowed Tim Pawlenty’s line that the GOP needed to become the party of “Sam’s Club,” not just the country club. But as the Reformicons’ influence has grown, their demands have been watered down: the budget plan recently unveiled by Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, supposedly a new acme of Reformicon thinking, buys off traditional Republicans with the elimination of taxes on investment and inherited income before timorously cutting in the “Sam’s Club” voters with an enhanced child tax credit (plus an enhanced EITC for the working poor).

Some libertarian-oriented Republicans also claim to be promoting a new right-wing economic populism via attacks on corporate subsidies or “crony capitalism.” But again, this is at best a syncretic approach, since these self-same “populists” are avid to reduce or eliminate taxes on or even regulation of the corporations they are savaging as fascistic leeches.

But at least two prospective GOP candidates for president in 2016 seem inclined to take an edgier approach to the task of appealing to the economic views of working-class conservatives — both of them candidates who have experienced considerable success in the past appealing to their cultural resentments.

Rick Santorum’s distinctive pitch so far in the 2016 invisible primary has been to match rhetorical appeals to white working class voters with a very specific hostility to legal as well as illegal immigration as the alleged reason for underemployment and wage stagnation. It’s sort of like an AFL-CIO argument circa 1990 with everything other than one subject blotted out.

But Mike Huckabee shows signs of going significantly further. He got a lot of credit in 2008 for being a “populist” initially because he refused to go along with GOP cheerleading over the George W. Bush economy, and subsequently because he feuded with fiscal hardliners — especially the Club for Growth (which Huckabee called the “Club for Greed”) — over his record in Arkansas. This time around he’s earning the “populist” label by criticizing two shibboleths of contemporary conservatism: free trade and “entitlement reform.”

In both cases, he’s mining grass-roots conservative disgruntlement with Republican orthodoxy. Moreover, he’s linking these economic complaints about the agenda of conservative business elites to his longstanding and more-pointed-than-ever attacks on the cultural agenda of liberal elites.

It will be interesting to see if he seeks and gains attention for being (most likely) the only candidate in a huge presidential field to take issue with the Republican congressional leadership’s push to win approval for Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. More importantly, the heavy, heavy investment of Republican politicians in budget schemes that depend on reductions in Social Security and Medicare spending will give Huckabee constant opportunities to tout his newly stated opposition to such cuts as a betrayal of promises made to middle-class workers who’ve been contributing payroll taxes their entire lives. Beyond that, two candidates — Chris Christie and Jeb Bush — are already on record favoring reductions in retirement benefits that go beyond the highly indirect voucher schemes associated with Paul Ryan.

Now it’s not entirely clear Huckabee can be an effective spokesman for a working-class-oriented “populist” faction in the GOP. He’s vulnerable to counter-attacks based on his record of supporting tax hikes as governor of Arkansas. Speaking of taxes, he’s very identified with the “Fair Tax” scheme of replacing the income tax with a national consumption tax, which has a superficial appeal to “populists” as a way to kill the IRS, but would massively shift the federal tax burden from the wealthy to the middle and lower classes. Huckabee’s commitment to culture war issues may be too much for many non-conservative-evangelical white working class voters, much as the non-economic views of the politician who introduced the whole concept of culture war, Pat Buchanan, made him unattractive to people who shared his disdain for free trade and liberalized immigration and foreign aid. Huckabee’s questionable organizational and fundraising skills are also handicaps.

But it is possible Huckabee (and perhaps Santorum, and maybe other opportunistic candidates down the road) could succeed in scaring away others from those economic positions of the Wall Street Journal editorial board that actual Republican voters do not like. And short of that, if something a bit closer to real “populism” than the token gestures of Reformicons and libertarians is crushed by party elites, the GOP could be exposed to some dangerous inroads from Democrats, who look to be far less reluctant to offend wealthy donors this cycle.

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