OUT OF THE OZARKS

Huckabee Is Ted Cruz’s Nightmare

How the former Arkansas governor’s populism could upend the Republican field.

04.21.15 9:25 AM ET

The Upshot’’s Nate Cohn is making the contrarian case for Mike Huckabee. I give him credit for seeing things that others might not, but—despite the optimistic headline: “Mike Huckabee Would Be a More Important Candidate Than You Might Think,” he actually underestimates Huck’s potential as a disruptive factor in this campaign.

It’s unclear what’s in the water in Hope, Arkansas, but that Bill Clinton and Huck are both from the same hamlet is nothing short of miraculous. Put aside the snake oil salesman stuff, and the numerous ridiculous things Huckabee has said to get attention, and you’re left with a man who is essentially the love child of Clinton and Ronald Reagan. I recently argued that only the great politicians like The Gipper and Bubba can oscillate between indignation and compassion. Well, guess what: Huckabee can do both, too. This is a guy who’s so compelling he actually got Jon Stewart to question his own abortion stance.

“I’m a conservative; I’m just not mad about it,” he often quips. Except he can be mad about it—or feign anger, at least. So he can play the reasonable conservative or he can hurl red meat. As they say in football, he can play both sides of the ball. In 2008, Huckabee came out of nowhere to wow us in the debates. The competition will be stiffer this time around, but he can do it again.

The fact that Huckabee is a good communicator—and that he can appeal to evangelical Christians, a hugely important constituency in Iowa—is not exactly the most novel observation. But I think there are two additional things Huckabee has going for him that are not as widely appreciated.

The first is that he spent the last several years as a Fox News host. Now, let’s be honest: It’s unlikely that many people reading this have ever watched Huckabee’s Saturday night show—except to see if he was going to announce for president (or for purely ironic purposes). And I’m not even suggesting you were watching Girls instead. A lot of us who watch Fox shows like Special Report wouldn’t think to turn on Huckabee.

But millions of Americans did watch his show—and guess what? Many of these same Americans will vote in Republican primaries. I think we probably underestimate the impact of hosting a weekly show on Fox News.

Lastly, though, I think there is a huge underserved constituency in the GOP—and that constituency is what might best be termed populist conservatives. These folks tend to be white and working-class and who feel they’ve been left behind in America. They are culturally conservative—but they also want to keep government out of their Medicare.

Mitt Romney was arguably the worst candidate Republicans could have ever nominated to appeal to this constituency. But while candidates like Huckabee and Rick Santorum flirted with going full populist, something always seemed to keep them from really doubling down on it.

One can only assume this is because there is a ceiling on how much populist demagoguery one is permitted to dole out—and still remain a Republican in good standing. There’s a fine line between attacking the “fat cats” and engaging in class warfare, and one doesn’t want to get on the wrong side of that line. But having cashed in, and now finding himself in his post-radio, and possibly post-TV phase, Huckabee might well decide it’s time to throw caution to the wind.

Don’t get me wrong: As a free market conservative, this brand of populism isn’t my cup of tea. Nor do I think Huckabee can win the nomination. He’s always lacked money and organization, and that won’t change. But as a political observer, I can’t help but suspect that there is a huge opening for a conservative candidate willing to be the working man’s conservative.

The last time someone really tried this was when “Pitchfork” Pat Buchanan, and then Ross Perot, ran in 1992. It resonated then, but that was before the “giant sucking sound” really kicked in. Whether it’s globalization or immigration—or whatever “-ation” might have taken your job—it stands to reason that the same grassroots phenomenon that helped Buchanan and Perot tap into an underserved constituency might be even more potent today.

Already known as a tax-and-spender, Mike Huckabee isn’t soon going to win over Steve Forbes or Larry Kudlow or The Club for Growth, so why try? There are tons of Americans out there listening to country radio, clinging to God and guns…and government.

The other day, when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie proposed some fairly modest reforms to save social security (means testing and raising the retirement age to 69), ostensibly conservative readers weighed in against it on the Facebook page of the Daily Caller, where I work.

“I’m entitled to social security because it’s MY money that I have given to the govt since I was 16 years old with the PROMISE I would get it back when I was older. FU Christie.” Yes, this is anecdotal—but this comment was also representative of a lot of comments on that particular post. A lot of conservatives appear to believe there is some lockbox where “their” money is being saved for their retirement.

A few days later came this headline from the Weekly Standard: “Huckabee Bashes Republican Plans to Reform Medicare and Social Security.” As Huckabee himself told The Daily Beast over the weekend, “I’m getting slammed by some in the GOP ruling class for thinking it wrong to involuntarily take money from people’s paychecks for 50 years and then not keep the promise government made.”

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Some of the same underlying trends behind the excitement over Elizabeth Warren are present, if dormant, on the right. So how can Huckabee break away from the pack? Most free market conservatives I know agree that “crony capitalism” is a problem. This has become boilerplate language you can expect from everyone from Marco Rubio to Ted Cruz, and it’s a kind of flirting with populism.

But Huckabee appears poised to do what no other Republican will have the ability or the inclination to do—and that is to go full populist in a way that acknowledges the fact that a lot of folks need the government’s help, that resents the fact that the game has been rigged by the rich and the corporations, yet still embraces a culturally conservative lifestyle. This will provoke serious pushback from the libertarian and pro-business wings of the conservative coalition. But if he does it—if he sticks to it—out there in the hinterland, there’ll be a market for it.

Get your pitchforks ready.

Editor's note: Matt Lewis's wife previously consulted for Ted Cruz's senate campaign, and currently consults for RickPAC, the leadership PAC affiliated with Rick Perry.