By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
I didn’t think that former Gov. Mike Huckabee was in the first tier of presidential hopefuls when he started talking about running. I probably had him at the bottom of the middle tier – somewhere around former Sen. Rick Santorum.
After covering Tuesday’s announcement, I’d move him into the first tier.
Huckabee’s appearance in his hometown of Hope drew a large crowd and lots of media. It was professional, with staff members and volunteers. He and wife Janet seemed confident and resolved. His campaign later announced his schedule for fundraising – always a weak spot of his.
Some people are saying he’s just looking for publicity. It didn’t look that way Tuesday. He already had a TV show, which he gave up in order to run.
No, this is a presidential campaign. The question is, can it be a winning one? His campaign points to poll numbers showing he has high favorability ratings among Republican voters compared to some of his potential opponents. Certainly, he knows how to speak to the party faithful.
His speech, which lasted half an hour, laid out a campaign theme of “From Hope to Higher Ground.” He mentioned gay marriage and abortion, of course, but he spent more time talking about economic policies, and that’s where he differentiates himself from many Republican candidates.
Average Americans’ wealth has stagnated at the same time that the gap between the top 1 percent and the rest of us is becoming kind of scary. This is one of the defining issues of our time, but Republicans are terrible at talking about it, in part because too many of them, like Mitt Romney, identify with the 1 percent.
Republicans say they’re the party of smaller government, and they should continue to be that, but they must do a better job of explaining why. They must blame policies, not people, but they really must blame less, period, and offer a positive vision for the country. If they spend the next year-and-a-half being simply the anti-Obama, anti-Hillary party, they’ll win Arkansas but won’t win the presidency. It sounds touchy-feely, but they must show they care about the problems, hopes and dreams of average Americans.
You can’t fake that, and that’s why Huckabee’s candidacy can’t be dismissed. In some ways, he’s the anti-Romney. He’s making a lot of money now, but he spent most of his life in the middle class, and that’s where his sensibilities remain. Tuesday, the former Pine Bluff and Texarkana pastor painted himself as the candidate of the common man in a way that Romney, the venture capitalist, could not pretend to do.
The term for his brand of blue collar, anti-elite politics is “economic populism,” and it speaks to a segment of the population that votes in Republican Party primaries but doesn’t necessarily donate much money to campaigns. It’s a bit out of step with the direction the party’s been going, and a lot of big donors don’t like it. Huckabee criticizes government in general, but some conservatives don’t trust how he would govern specifically, given that as governor he helped create a statewide government health program, ARKids First, and raised some taxes (while cutting others). The powerful Club for Growth thinks he’s too liberal and has already bought $100,000 in anti-Huckabee ads running in Iowa and South Carolina. He’s called it the “club for greed.”
But all the candidates face headwinds. The party tends to select the safest, best-funded choice. That’s Jeb Bush this year, but even his own mother has questioned if Americans should elect a third member of the same family. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s candidacy has lost its shine. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul probably bucks Republican Party orthodoxy too often to be nominated.
Unlike the Democrats, Republicans don’t have a favorite at this point. So if Huckabee wins Iowa, he can start doing some damage.
This is not an endorsement of Huckabee’s candidacy or a prediction he’ll win. I still believe he’ll run out of gas at some point. The Republican establishment will want to coalesce behind someone early so it can target Hillary Clinton. In the end, the winner will be the candidate favored by the big money donors. It usually is.
Whoever that is, it has to be someone who can speak about the middle class and to the middle class. He or she must connect, not just campaign. Huckabee can do that, and that’s why he’s in the first tier.