Over the weekend, Fox News host Mike Huckabee announced he was leaving his show to consider a presidential bid. On Monday, he was greeted by a familiar blast of hot breath from the economically conservative pressure group Club for Growth, which denounced him as a tax-raising, government-growing economic illiterate — and a grossly overweight hick to boot.
Well, the hick part wasn't stated explicitly, but when it comes to the GOP elite and Mike Huckabee, it is usually implied.
Huckabee creates a fascinating chemical reaction when introduced into a Republican primary. He does the GOP elite the disfavor of taking their professed populism half-seriously. He runs on the premise that social conservatives have a legitimate right to lead the party, not just obey and enable it. People who have a lot of money and vote Republican often hate that.
There's an obvious class-based disgust that colors elite GOP reaction to Huckabee. They mockingly share his gauche Christmas cards, and urge him to retire to "the bait shop on the lake," to be surrounded by good Christians. His C.V. includes bullet points that cause boardroom dwellers to reach for their thrombolytics, things like "Arkansas governor," "Ouachita Baptist University," and "bassist, cover band."
And worst of all is Huckabee's wit. If the man were just a pious stage prop like Pat Robertson, or a raver like Alan Keyes, that would be tolerable. Unfortunately, Huckabee is wittier than a lot of people whose self-worth depends on being sharper than Arkansan preachers.
In his last go-around in 2008, the slights at Huckabee seemed to urge him to resist elite GOP orthodoxies even more. He said he identified with Main Street more than Wall Street. He questioned free trade's effect on America's political independence. He made a group of Value Voters jump to their feet when he proclaimed, "A country that cannot feed itself, that cannot fuel itself, and that cannot fight for itself with its own weapons which it manufactures itself is a nation that is not longer free... I don't want to see our food come from China, our oil come from Saudi Arabia, and our manufacturing come from Europe and Asia."
But Huckabee has not fully articulated a vision of government that flows logically from his socially conservative, economically populist instincts. He has outlined the goals of a more nationalist economic reform (self-sufficiency in food, fuel, defense), but not the policy substance that would get us there. Similarly, even people who share some of his views might question the utility and feasibility of Huckabee's plan to replace the federal income tax with a national consumption tax.
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.