It's become conventional wisdom among a certain segment of political pundits and conservative intellectuals — especially the so-called Reformicons — that the GOP has a plutocracy problem. Too many high-end tax cuts, too much indifference to the struggles of working-class voters, too many denunciations of the mooching ways of the American people — all of it adds up to a party that looks out of touch and overly beholden to the concerns of wealthy donors at the expense of everyone else.
Until recently, no one fixing to run for the White House in 2016 looked likely to do so as a populist. But that may have changed over this past weekend, when Mike Huckabee quit his television show on Fox News as a possible first step toward throwing his hat into the ring.
You'd think that the prospect of a Huckabee candidacy would cause the party's populists to swoon. After all, Huckabee is a folksy Southern evangelical Christian, a bass-playing two-term governor, and an ordained Southern Baptist minister who won eight states (including Iowa) the last time he ran for president in 2008. And that was before he raised his profile with a nationally syndicated radio program and a TV show on the right's premier cable channel.
And yet the Huckabee news this past Saturday produced the opposite of excitement. Mainstream conservatives mocked the prospect of his candidacy on Twitter, while reformers who've been pining for a populist have been muted.
The question is why.
And the answer, I think, is that on some level smart Republicans understand that populism is as much a problem for the party as plutocracy.
Yes, Mitt Romney's tendency to toady to superrich donors and entrepreneurs — coming on the heels of George W. Bush's high-end tax cuts — certainly saddled the GOP with a plutocratic image problem. But what about its tendency to flatter culturally alienated middle-class Americans by dismissing evolutionary biology, by mocking professors and "experts" of all kinds, and by pandering to the prejudices of a certain kind of ill-informed, reactionary religious believer?
The fact is that the Republican Party has long since become a bizarre only-in-America hybrid of fat cats and rednecks.
Deep down Republicans know that while a Huckabee candidacy might help address the image problems associated with the first half of that equation, he'd make those wrapped up with the second half far worse.
Consider some of Huckabee's public statements in recent years:
- Praising the work of a hack historian lionized by Know Nothing evangelicals, Huckabee declared in 2011, "I almost wish that...all Americans would be forced, at gunpoint, to listen to every David Barton message." (Thank goodness for that "almost"!)
- Responding to the Sandy Hook school massacre of 2012, Huckabee suggested that schools had become "place[s] of carnage" because "we have systematically removed God from our schools."
- Last winter, Huckabee stated in a speech (not unscripted remarks) that "if the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it."
- Huckabee's latest book, slated to appear on Jan. 20, is titled God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy.
That, my friends, is what right-wing American populism sounds like in the second decade of the 21st century. It is the irritable mental gesture of a provincial (rural or exurban) white America that can't tell the difference between cultural signaling and a cogent argument. And it treats the details of public policy as an afterthought or a matter of indifference.
Would-be Republican reformers can look for a better vehicle than Mike Huckabee for the populism they favor, but they're unlikely to find one. Huckabee — or someone like him — is the only game in town.
The authentic reform of the GOP — its refashioning into a genuinely national party — requires more than the shedding of its plutocratic image. It also requires that the party's leading lights give up on their impossible populist dreams.