This post appeared originally at my Huffington Post column on May 6, 2015.
In 2008, Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas made a strong run for the Republican nomination for president. He won the Iowa caucus and carried over four million popular votes across the length of the Republican primary. In the wake of the nominating contest, there were even some commentators who suggested that it was Mike Huckabee, not Mitt Romney, who should be perceived as the heir-apparent for the 2012 Republican nomination.
Still, Huckabee decided to sit out the 2012 contest, apparently because of a desire to increase his and his family’s financial security. He had his Fox News gig, his speaking engagements, and even lent his name to some dubious “alternative” treatments for diabetes. Now, however, he has joined the ever-growing field of contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
Does he have a prayer? It’s legitimate to pose the question in just this way because it is clear that Huckabee wishes to make the case that his own candidacy best represents the way fundamentalist Christians read the Bible and see the world. He wants to be their candidate, and to be the bearer of their “biblical” worldview in the political arena. His first career, after all, was as a Baptist minister.
To get a sense of the campaign he is likely to run, we should take a look at his new book, “God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy.” The title alone is evocative. He wants to be the candidate of traditional small-town America. He disparages New York as little better than “Sodom and Gomorrah” (p. 2). Fly-over country, that is where Huckabee finds the true America, the places where Second-Amendment “liberties” are celebrated, and people are free to eat fried foods and “sawmill gravy” without government intrusion.
The heart of Huckabee’s book, however, is religious. Its main thesis is that fundamentalist Christians have become the new politically dispossessed. It is a thesis that needs to be looked at carefully, because it simply isn’t true.
Let’s start with Chapter One, entitled “The New American Outcasts.” The protagonist of this chapter is Dan Cathy, the President of the Chick-Fil-A restaurant chain. In the summer of 2012, Cathy publicly expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage and was immediately attacked by leading political figures.
But Dan Cathy was hardly helpless. Huckabee recalled how he came to Cathy’s defense. He proposed on his national television show that August 1, 2012, be made into “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day” and urged his viewers to patronize Cathy’s stores on that day. The customers came, bought their sandwiches, and Cathy undoubtedly earned a tidy profit.
Huckabee’s larger point, that Dan Cathy represents a new type of American outcast, is bizarre. He is the Chief Executive of a major American corporation with over 1,600 stores. When he took a political stand, he met with political resistance. Politics is like that — you can’t always get your way. Sometimes you even lose. But Dan Cathy had highly-placed allies of his own. A former presidential candidate — Mike Huckabee — used his own prestige and political capital to drive business to Cathy’s stores.
“Outcast” is the wrong word for Dan Cathy, just as it would be the wrong word to use for Hobby Lobby. Cathy was — and remains — a man of wealth and influence who has access to political leaders most Americans can never hope to enjoy.
It is plain, however, that Huckabee intends to make opposition to same-sex marriage a centerpiece of his campaign. Again, we can take a look at another chapter from his book, this one entitled “Same-Sex Marriage and the Law (God’s and Man’s).” Huckabee employs all of the usual tired, threadbare arguments against same-sex marriage. If you depart at all from monogamous, heterosexual marriage, you will lose the ability to draw lines. Why not groups of men marrying one another? Or groups of women? Why not polygamous marriage (one man and many women, or many men and women all at once)?
He reads the Bible as if the only form of marriage it approved was monogamous heterosexuality. Even a casual reader of the Book of Genesis, however, will understand it as approving of alternative forms of marriage such as the polygamy of the patriarchs.
Still, one sees the outline of a political strategy in the way Huckabee states his case. He wants social conservatives to feel under siege, to feel embattled, to have a sense of alienation. It is out of that sense of alienation that Huckabee hopes to build his movement.
I tend to think that his message of unrepentant social conservatism will fail. It will fail for at least two reasons. First, Huckabee is not the only social conservative in the race. Ben Carson has been running an effective stealth candidacy for months and coalescing support around a social conservative message. So also has Ted Cruz. Both of these candidates know how to appeal to the alienation and isolation of social conservatives.
More importantly, however, I think Huckabee will fail because social conservatism is increasingly a spent political force. There was a time — thirty years ago, even twenty — when religiously-motivated social conservatives like Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed commanded instantaneous national attention. In those days, it seemed like the energy and the enthusiasm was with them.
But we have since witnessed a demographic changing of the guard. Now the supporters of same-sex marriage are the ones with the excitement and the enthusiasm and the clear mandate of public opinion. Mike Huckabee will not ride social conservatism to the Republican nomination for president.
Still, I do believe that Huckabee does have a “prayer” at winning the nomination, though perhaps not much more than that. And that is through a message of economic populism. He instinctively understands that substantial portions of the Republican base are not well off. Especially in the South, they are older, and can best be described as working class or lower-middle class. Quite rightly, they see themselves as economically insecure.
And so Huckabee has come out against those Republicans — like Paul Ryan or Chris Christie — who would cut Social Security or Medicare. And he’s stated his forceful, uncompromising opposition to additional free-trade agreements. Sounding very much like Ross Perot, Huckabee wants to present himself as the defender of American jobs against the large multi-lateral corporations.
Most Republicans are either unable or unwilling to state the case for economic populism. Can you imagine Mitt Romney ever saying anything remotely like this? This willingness to say things against “Republican type” may make Huckabee one of the more interesting contenders in the race.
In the end, of course, I would not vote him. I think he is profoundly wrong on same-sex marriage. And while I agree with him on Social Security and Medicare, his overall anti-government message is at odds with his selective desire to defend these programs. It is, after all, the government that provides Social Security and all of the other social-safety-net programs that, yes, even Mike Huckabee’s constituents rely on. We should be in the business of building a stronger, more robust government, one that guarantees universal health care and access to higher education. But that is a story for another day.