I like Mike Huckabee. A lot. He’s simply a fun, funny, principled, appealing guy. Whether or not I think he’d make a good president (and I don’t), he would definitely make a great presidential candidate. And that should have Democrats scared.
During my time at Fox News, I appeared on Gov. Huckabee’s show a handful of times. We always had fiery but friendly exchanges. And behind the scenes, even more than in front of the camera, Gov. Huckabee was always affable and downright, double-me-over funny. He’s simply a hoot. Our political environment today is decisively un-funny and the state of the world is downright tragic, but legions of stiff shirt, stiff personality politicians aren’t helping the matter. Barack Obama broke through the fog, and the expectations of the status quo political machine, thanks to his simply winning, charismatic personality. Huckabee is gifted with a similar charisma.
That Huckabee is mentioned in the same sentence with other aspiring conservative governors, especially Bobby Jindal, is laughable. It’s not just that Jindal lacks charisma; I think he actively repels it. And similar shards of enthusiasm-killing kryptonite are lodged in John Kasich, Mike Pence and Ted Cruz. Jeb Bush and Scott Walker don’t exactly make anyone’s toes tingle, either. In fact, and admittedly I’m a biased judge, but the only thing about most Republican presidential hopefuls that sends shivers up my spine are their policy beliefs.
But personal dynamism alone isn’t the only reason Democrats should worry about a Huckabee candidacy. At a time when more and more politicians never open their mouths before sticking their fingers in the wind, Mike Huckabee has remained amazingly, devoutly principled. Now I think it’s also the case that many of those devout principles are precisely what would doom a Huckabee candidacy, especially in a general election. His extremist views about gay marriage and abortion are wildly out of touch with the majority of American voters. Even in a Republican primary, where voters notoriously lean hard right, Huckabee may have trouble reconciling his unyielding views with the emerging majority of more libertarian, live-and-let-live Republicans.
And yet for all that, and for all of Nate Silver and his offspring, we still know surprisingly little about the motivations of actual voters when the actual candidates hit the ground and choices must be made. In the 2014 midterms, the same voters who backed liberal ballot measures elected conservative candidates who opposed those same ballot measures. A set of voters are very conservative, a set are very liberal, but a wide swath make up the middle—and as we know, winning elections is about turning out your left or right base, plus winning a chunk of the middle. And, especially when it comes to the middle, personality counts.
Polls about who voters would rather have a beer with may seem stupid, but they make some sense. Deciding you want to hang out with someone reflects a combined decision about whether they’re “your kind of person” in terms of beliefs and, also, simply a nice person who would be fun to hang out with. In such beer polls, I suspect a lot of voters would pick Huckabee. Never mind that Huckabee doesn’t drink. He seems like a easy-going, relatable guy. And in terms of his beliefs, maybe they’re not yours, but at least you know what his are—as opposed to say Hillary Clinton, who always seems like she’s still searching for whatever beliefs you’ll like most.
And perhaps the most dangerous thing about Mike Huckabee is that some of those firm beliefs, those clear convictions, appeal to liberal voters. In a post-Occupy moment, when even Democrats are desperate to strike the chord of economic populism—fueling, for instance, the clamoring for Elizabeth Warren to mount a challenge Hillary Clinton—Huckabee spouts populist rhetoric with ease.
In the 2008 primaries, Huckabee said things like, “One of our failures [as a Republican Party] is the ability to speak to African-Americans, to speak to Hispanics, to speak to working class people—more than just speaking to the board room, speaking to the people who go in and clean up after the meeting.” And he has said politicians need to remember they’re “not elected to the ruling class but to the servant class.” Huckabee’s policies don’t necessarily match—in the 2008 race, for instance, he supported extending the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans, implementing a regressive national sales tax, making a federal push for more home schooling and charter schools, and creating private health savings accounts.
Still, amidst a Republican field that can’t even manage to cloak its 1 percent-friendly policies in 99 percent-appealing rhetoric (and not to mention a leading Democratic contender struggling to do the same), Huckabee can at least talk the talk. He has even joked about how his fellow Republicans attack him. “’He’s a populist!’” Huckabee cites other candidates saying. “What they actually mean by that is, you know, he actually knows some people that are poor.”
In campaigns that are more about more about ads and appearances and personality, and sadly less about substance—even though substantive disagreements exist and are key—the sense that Huckabee is a Republican who knows there are poor people, knows how to talk about them, and apparently wants to do something to help could be very appealing. As evidence, Huckabee is pro-government enough—which is to say, at all—that already the arch anti-tax Club for Growth is pledging to oppose his potential 2016 candidacy because he “increased state spending” in Arkansas and “raised the minimum wage.”
“You try to always scratch where the itch is,” Huckabee said about his campaigning and rhetoric in the 2008 primary. “That’s true whether it’s speeches or your own sores.” True. And funny. And, if Democrats are paying attention, ominous. There may be some itch out there, among socially conservative but economically populist(ish) voters, that Mike Huckabee might be able to scratch.