Don’t Underestimate Mike Huckabee

The former Arkansas governor could split the right-wing vote and energize economic populists.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in New Orleans, Louisiana, June 16, 2011
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in New Orleans, Louisiana, June 16, 2011 (Gage Skidmore)

Mike Huckabee joined an increasingly crowded field of Republican presidential candidates on Tuesday when he announced he would stand for the party’s 2016 nomination.

Six Republicans have said they are running for the American presidency so far. Ten more, including the frontrunner, Jeb Bush, are formally exploring a candidacy.

Huckabee is unlikely to win the nomination, let alone the presidency. The former Arkansas governor’s staunchly conservative views on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage are growing out of touch with those of Middle America. But he could yet have an impact on the Republican race. Huckabee splits the right-wing vote, which would favor “establishment” candidate Bush, and brings an economic populism to the agenda that should worry the party’s pro-business wing.

Huckabee, who is also a former Southern Baptist pastor, was unapologetic about his social conservatism on Tuesday. “We’ve lost our way, morally,” he said. He described abortion as “slaughter” and referred to “the biblical principles of natural marriage.” As recently as February, he said homosexuality was a “lifestyle” comparable to drinking.

While many other Republicans are learning to live with gay marriage, which the Supreme Court could rule in favor of next month, Huckabee’s insistence on “traditional” marriage makes him popular on the religious right which plays an outsized role in Republican primary elections.

The last time Huckabee ran for president, in 2008, he surprisingly won the first nominating contest in Iowa. He went on to win seven more primary races, most of them in the Deep South, tallying up 20 percent support altogether, before withdrawing in March.

The focus of Huckabee’s speech on Tuesday was not the conservative social agenda for which he is best known, however. He spent more time talking about economic issues instead and distinguished himself from the mainstream of the party by arguing against entitlement reform and free trade.

“You were forced to pay for Social Security and Medicare for fifty years,” Huckabee told his supporters in Hope, Arkansas.

If Congress wants to take away someone’s retirement, let them end their own congressional pensions, not your Social Security. As president, I promise you will get what you paid for!

Republicans in Congress have not voted to reform Social Society but they did vote to overhaul Medicare which pays health care for seniors.

As is the case in most rich countries, America’s welfare programs are becoming unaffordable. It has an advantage over European nations in that it attracts enough immigrants to stave off an aging crisis — although Huckabee, like most Republicans, wants to restrict immigration, making entitlements even less affordable in the long run.

Nevertheless, the programs, which include Medicaid, already account for two-thirds of federal spending. As early as 2025, federal tax revenues could only cover entitlements, leaving no money for discretionary spending on defense, education and infrastructure. Short of raising taxes, it is difficult to see how a President Huckabee could keep the commitments of Medicare and Social Security. His position is more similar to that of many Democrats who simply refuse to admit there is a problem.

On trade, too, Huckabee sounded more like a Democrat, arguing that free-trade deals drive wages “lower than the Dead Sea.”

The rest of his party supports trade agreements with European and Pacific countries President Barack Obama is negotiating. Many of Obama’s own Democrats, however, fear — as Huckabee does — that the pacts will cause job losses and wage cuts in the United States.

In an election that is likely to pit the wife of a former president against the brother and son of another, Huckabee’s folksy, common-man conservatism could prove more convincing than either the firebrand rhetoric of Texas’ Ted Cruz or the managerial style of his centrist opponents.

“I don’t come from a family dynasty but a working family,” he said on Tuesday. “I grew up blue-collar, not blue-blood.”

Jeb Bush, by contrast, is the scion of a family that has been successful in business and politics for generations while the Democrats’ likely candidate, Hillary Clinton, is a former first lady, former senator and former secretary of state.