Mike Huckabee, populism, and the Republican party | Arkansas Blog

Friday, May 8, 2015

Mike Huckabee, populism, and the Republican party

Posted By on Fri, May 8, 2015 at 12:18 PM

KINGFISH: Can old-fashioned Southern Democrat populism make headway in the Republican primaries?
  • KINGFISH: Can old-fashioned Southern Democrat populism make headway in the Republican primaries?

Lots of national media this week on Mike Huckabee's message of economic populism, which we've noted a few times since Huckabee announced that he is running for president on Tuesday. 

Salon' s Joan Walsh (with the inspired headline, "Homophobia meets populism: Is there an upside to Huckabee’s “backside” politics?") argues that Huckabee's social conservatism and economic populism could make him unique in the field and gather white working class voters (and particularly white seniors) who are an increasingly vital constituency in the GOP: 

But only Huckabee, among Republicans, is trying to craft an economic pitch that might appeal to this new cornerstone of the GOP. Everyone else is hoping that warmed-over Reaganism, blaming the poor for their poverty and assorted dog whistles will do the trick, even as Republicans remain the party of the top 1 percent.

Walsh suggests Huckabee might go after blue blood Jeb Bush the way he once went after Mitt Romney. And in a GOP primary, Huckabee's ability to out-gay-bash everyone probably helps on this front: he can sell himself as the man of the Tea Party people, running against the bigwig/establishment/elite moderate GOPs who are squishy on social issues and shilling for Wall Street. Even if he's long since cashed in himself, Huckabee's specialty is still folksy, populist demagoguery, and there is definitely a market for that in a Republican primary. 

Jamelle Bouie at Slate argues that Huckabee's "welfare state conservatism" could work for him: 

What Huckabee understands—and what makes him a serious presence in the GOP field—is that many Republican voters, even those on the right, aren’t opposed to generous government spending on individuals. Disproportionately older or elderly, they’re strong supporters of Social Security and Medicare, which they see as earned benefits. Instead, they’re opposed to spending on people perceived as undeserving. Texas Gov. Rick Perry discovered this the hard way in the 2012 primary, when he blasted Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme.” Seniors turned against him.

Bouie points out a 2013 poll that shows the welfare-for-me-but-not-for-thee attitude among the Tea Party faithful that Huck is tapping in to: 

62 percent of Republicans said it was more important to keep retirement benefits at current levels than it was to reduce the deficit. By contrast, 55 percent of Republicans said it was more important to reduce the deficit than to fund programs for the “poor and needy.”

Bouie and Walsh both conclude that even if there is a constituency for this (basically akin to the Dixie Democrats of the New Deal coalition), Huckabee has no real shot at the nomination because the Republican Party is simply not a home for vigorous defenders of entitlement spending. 

"Republican voters might like Huckabee’s blend of culture war politics and spending for retirees, but Republican donors are more skeptical," Bouie writes.

Basically there's really not a party for cultural conservatives who want a robust social safety net for the elderly — and "Gods/gays/guns" cultural signaling can rally the GOP troops even if the details of the Republican Study Committee budget would probably infuriate a good chunk of the base. Huckabee is going to highlight those contradictions. That might be the most interesting part about his candidacy: Huck is the canary in the demographic coal mine. As the Republican party is increasingly dominated by older white voters who don't want anyone messing with their Social Security and Medicare, the GOP is eventually going to have to figure out a way cater to them.

p.s. Another Republican candidate, Dr. Ben Carson, is also dabbling with a slight left turn on economic issues: Carson says the minimum wage should "probably" be higher

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