Seemingly every day, there is a new piece by a high-profile Republican/conservative attacking Mike Huckabee for being some sort of "big government" conservative or even liberal. Today, it was Bob Novak. I’m not going to quibble on the points, although I would point out that in Northern Virginia, where I sit, raising taxes to fund education and roads is pretty popular among Republicans and the local Chamber of Commerce.
Is Mike Huckabee going to be President? No. Does he represent something about the future of the GOP? I think so. Recall what David Brooks said about George Bush and his compassionate conservative agenda:
while some Republicans argue that big government conservatism started under George W. Bush and that the G.O.P. was in decent shape until Bush ruined it, this is a total myth. In fact, it was Bush in 1999 who single-handedly (though temporarily) rescued the Republican Party. He did it not by courting Republican interest groups, but by coming up with something new. On July 22, he delivered a speech in Indianapolis in which he explicitly distanced himself from Washington Republicans and laid the groundwork for compassionate conservatism.
The point here was that Bush could pick up working class voters. It is now a truism that he succeeded in spades here. The Bush-Rove plan for domination was to split Hispanics and African-American voting blocs, with immigration reform and religious outreach, respectively. Note that this is a rehash of what the Reagan campaign tried in 1980. (How many WASPs were on Reagan’s Connecticut Committee in 1980?) The possibility of success was demonstrated by "Angela Williams" in John Harwood’s recent WSJ piece on the changing demographics of party identification.
Patrick Ruffini sees a slightly different side to this:
Bush’s message was at least coherent. It was a savvy tactical response to Republicans constantly getting cut up by the rhetorical meatgrinder of the Clinton presidency. In time, people would come to appreciate the President’s plainspoken and direct approach to politics, in contrast to Clinton’s prevarication. And he was remarkably successful at doing what he set out to do. Eight years later, no one thinks of the Republican Party as stingy Scrooges eager to starve grandma. …
What Bush did in domestic policy was redefine a wayward party by triangulating in a sort of Clinton-Blair “Third Way” mold.
As a comparative point, there was more going on than a Clinton-Blair phenomenon. The Anglosphere left all have no made the same jump. In Canada, the Liberals went center-right on economics. The Australian Labour Party just won an election by trying to blur economic issues. In some sense, with the collapse of global socialism and communism, all the parties have moved to the right. Also, as these societies have grown wealthier, the issue mix has changed.
Harwood’s piece illustrates the flip-side of the problem, and gets to our broader point. Where do we go for adding more votes? One option is to try to get back some of the affluents that Harwood describes us losing and yesterday’s Washington Times describes the Dems picking up. As Ross Douthat points out, "[t]he socially-liberal upper-middle class is large and growing larger." However, I think he makes a compelling argument that these people are lost to us, ultimately:
[M]ost of the northeastern and West Coast suburbanites the GOP has lost aren’t just social liberals – they’ve become liberals, flat-out, as issues like crime and taxes have lost their salience and the Democratic Party has moved to the middle on economics.
Big business will suck up to Democrats. The hedge funds and private equity are getting all the love out of Chuck Schumer that they need. And, as David Ignatius points out, Hillary is no leftist, even though Hillary is no Bill. And, as Greg Mankiw pointed out, even the Rangel "Mother of all Tax Hikes" is no class-warfare dream.
So, I think, that the other option is to try to dig deeper into the working class. Huckabee’s overt populism is one approach. John McCain’s slightly more low-key populism, on economic issues, combined with a more rabid anti-Washington populism is another strategy and, perhaps, a more likely endpoint than Huckabee’s approach. However, Huckabee does open a window to that future.
In any case, I suspect that the continual attacks on Huckabee aren’t going to be so threatening. First, his voters probably don’t care. As Richard Land said about Duncan Hunter, "A lot of evangelicals are probably sympathetic to his protectionist arguments." Second, his response that he spent money on school and roads can be pretty compelling to a bunch of Iowa farmers, if he manages to get his message out. And third, I wonder how many of the super-rich Club for Growthers are left? How many i-bankers participate in Iowa caucuses anyways?
Now, this has focused on Huckabee’s economic message. There is an interesting question about Huckabee’s message on moral issues. My gut is that Huckabee follows the breezes in the evangelical community.