DARK HORSE

09.22.14 9:45 AM ET

Iowa Frontrunner Mike Huckabee Talks to The Daily Beast

Mike Huckabee is an exceptional political talent with an early lead in the GOP’s 2016 primary. But can he sell voters on his vision of the future?

President Huckabee? Really? Well, maybe. Eight years after his first attempt, 2016 may be the year in which Mike Huckabee wins the Republican presidential nomination.

According to CNN’s latest poll of Iowa voters, Huckabee comfortably leads Congressman Paul Ryan, his nearest prospective competitor, and bests the rest of the field by double digits. He’s also outpolling Hillary Clinton in the battleground state of North Carolina, indicating that Huckabee has real potential to “dark horse” his way into the White House in 2016. 

In an interview with The Daily Beast, the former Arkansas governor (he led the state for over a decade) eschewed any talk of electioneering, and seemed most engaged on issues at home and abroad. In particular, relieving the suffering of the middle class, rejecting a two-state solution for Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and protecting American sovereignty and national security are all concepts that have captured Huckabee’s imagination.

His emphasis on middle-class concerns is, well, understandable. Just look at the stock market. Once again, on Friday, the Dow set another record against a backdrop of stagnant wages, sclerotic growth, and shrinking labor force participation rate, now down to under 63 percent, a 36-year low that is likely to drop further

Meanwhile, ISIS is on the march, and President Obama strikes an uncertain pose. According to Pew, more than three in five Americans are very concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism. At the same time, nearly half than country feels that we are less secure today than we were on 9/11.   

Huckabee framed the situation this way: “We are fumbling on multiple fronts.”

For example, domestically, Huckabee views America’s policies as running counter to the needs of middle-class America. Huckabee points out that “Open immigration policies bring foreign labor to work on the cheap—even in high-tech sectors where students who worked in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] programs are being passed over for immigrants.”

Huckabee’s stance is likely to put him at odds with influential Silicon Valley moguls and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but the Arkansan is in sync with public sentiment. When Obama seeks to punt immigration to a lame duck Congress—that is, when the voters are least likely to be paying attention— that is a tell-tale sign that our porous borders are a loser with the public at large, a notion that even Hillary Clinton appears to be embracing

But Huckabee’s take on immigration is also part of a broader piece that treats citizenship as a privilege, rather than a political expedient. In his words, “No nation on Earth fails to control its borders. It’s insanity to believe that the only people crossing our borders are coming to pick tomatoes or lay brick. We are proudly a nation of immigrants, but should be a nation of laws. We are ignoring our laws and traditions for political purposes.”

Domestically, the former governor offers an avowedly nationalistic agenda, focused on American self-sufficiency. As he says, “We should focus on three things: Feed ourselves (agriculture), Fuel ourselves (energy), and Fight for ourselves (manufacture our own weapons of defense and not outsource it).” 

Energy policy and production are not just national security items on his agenda, but go to the very heart of giving the middle class a boost. Huckabee adds, “High energy and higher food costs take away any upward mobility of the middle class. Extracting our own energy is not only job creation, but wealth retention for the middle class.”

For Huckabee, these are familiar points: He made them in 2007 and 2008, when most Republicans were still happy-talking the bubble economy.

Yet, where Huckabee is actually groundbreaking is the Middle East, where he rejects decades of stated U.S. policy and received wisdom. With Barack Obama having made an Israeli-Palestinian peace a priority at the beginning of his administration to no avail, and then giving Secretary of State John Kerry free rein to endlessly shuttle between Jerusalem and Ramallah and having nothing to show for it, Huckabee put it bluntly: “The so-called two-state solution is a politician’s pipe dream.” 

“Pipe dream”? Perhaps. Huckabee’s derision is very much grounded in reality. These days, Hamas surpasses the main line Palestinian Authority in popularity, and shows no interest in ceding power in Gaza, making another U.S. stab at peace negotiations tantamount to a fool’s errand. 

Yes, Huckabee’s take on the Middle East is clearly a departure from successive administrations’, which at least paid lip service to a two-state solution. Also, to be sure, Huckabee’s position conflicts with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1397: “affirming a vision of a region where two States, Israel and Palestine, live side by side within secure and recognized borders.” 

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However, being at loggerheads with the U.N. would actually be a badge of honor during the primaries; and thumbing his nose at Foggy Bottom and the Palestinians would earn him points with the GOP’s base. 

Huckabee also calls for stepped-up human intelligence to keep America safe, while chiding the administration for its miscalculations: “Human intelligence is critical. We say that the NSA is justified in looking for the needle in the haystack, but are we just making the haystack bigger and therefore harder to find the needle.”

If Huckabee decides to run for president, his candidacy will upend the Republican field with his demonstrated strength in the Farm Belt and the South. And demographically, Huckabee is emblematic of today’s Republican Party—a non-urban working- and middle-class party. While the GOP’s donor base may be found on Wall Street and the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Huckabee’s core is the American heartland. Couple Huckabee’s geography with his stance on social issues, and he has a clear shot at the nomination.

Come the New Year, the 2016 field will come into better focus. But for the moment, Huckabee seems content speaking about the issues. With America and the world in turmoil, that is a welcome development. There is time for the game later.