The rap against Mike Huckabee, the Baptist preacher and ex-Arkansas governor now doing for the Republican Party establishment what three-alarm chili does for an afternoon nap, is that he’s too inexperienced to be president, too naïve — a rube straight out of Dogpatch.
Few of Huckabee’s critics have actually come out and said what many of them think. The language is coded, as it usually is with class and race in this country. The Wall Street Journal, the anti-tax jihadists at the Club For Growth, the National Review – these pillars of Old School Republicanism have signaled that Huckabee is Not One of Ours. But they’re careful to say it’s not about class, because, of course – it is!
Class war is forbidden in the Republican playbook. But Huckabee, despite an inept last week of campaigning, has forced the Republican party to face the Wal-Mart shoppers that they have long taken advantage of. He’s here. He’s Gomer. And he’s not going away.
Huckabee revels in the class war. He’s Two-Buck Huck, and darn proud of it. He likes nothing better than playing the Hick from Hope. He and his wife lived in a trailer for a while, he points out. His son killed a dog one summer, “a mangy dog” at that, as Huckabee explained to the befuddled national press corps. He said he used to eat squirrels, cooking them up in his popcorn popper. Ewwwwhhh!
And what’s up with that Chuck Norris shadow, following him everywhere like a late-night rerun? To the establishment, Norris is a B-lister with a bad hair dye and a ’70s-era karate shtick. They prefer Bruce Willis – bald Republican action hero.
Huckabee has been telling people in Iowa that Republican higher-ups would never let him become the nominee because he “has a hick last name.” Wow. I’d like to be in on that focus group.
“For my family, summer was never a verb,” he says. Take that, Mitt Romney and your perfect family, costumed in Ralph Lauren casual wear down by the shore. And this: “Wall Street types are afraid to death of a guy like me.” You mean, a guy who lost 110 pounds and cooks squirrels in his popcorn popper?
In his book “From Hope to Higher Ground,” Huckabee wrote that just before he moved into the governor’s mansion, “dozens of hate-filled letters proclaimed that we lacked the class to live in such a fine and stately home.”
Of course, he didn’t help himself when he finally moved out of the mansion and into a fine and stately home of his own. A gift registry was set up so people could help the Hucks furnish their new 7,000-square-foot casa. This from a man who accepted more than $130,000 worth of gifts as governor, everything from a $600 chain saw to a discount card at Wendy’s.
At the root of all the sniping at Huckabee, he sees a common cause. Some powerful Republicans dislike him, he said on the “Today Show,” because “I’m not one of them.”
It’s okay to have faux rubes, a la Bush senior and his pork rinds, or George W. and his Midland malapropisms. But when something that looks like the real thing comes along, the Republican royalists get apoplectic. They were appalled at the recent YouTube debate because it looked like a parody of one faction of their party – complete with Bible-waving wackos, trigger-happy gun nuts and Confederate-flag enthusiasts.
Among fellow Republican candidates, Huckabee is certainly “not one of them” in the bottom-line sense. All the other leading contenders would be comfortable on the massage table at a Trump seaside resort, in between seminars on how to keep poor people from getting health care. Romney, with a net worth estimated by Money magazine at upwards of $250 million, made his pile with an investment firm. Rudolph Giuliani is close to the $50 million club, enriched by such heavy-lifting as trying to help the makers of OxyContin stay out of jail.
Huckabee tells audiences that he is one generation removed from folks who slept on a dirt floor, and that he’s the first person in his family to graduate from high school. It’s a terrific narrative, as American as they come.
There is some evidence that he’s bringing lower-income Americans into the party. The latest Des Moines Register poll shows that Huckabee runs strongest among people earning $50,000 or less a year.
Still, there’s not much for the other end to fear from Huckabee. He bashes the “Wall Street to Washington axis.” But would he put some restraint on the new Gilded Age titans, or abolish the gravy train that lets guys like Fred Thompson and Trent Lott get rich by selling the ex-senator part of their resume? Nope.
And his astonishingly regressive tax plan, getting rid of the income tax for one that takes revenue from sales, would do for the rich what the late Leona Helmsley did for her dog in that infamous will.
Republicans in the three-home set should relax. Huckabee may occasionally lack class, but he’s no class warrior. You can have him over for dinner. Honest. Just hide the popcorn popper.
- Tim Egan
Timothy Egan worked for 18 years as a writer for The New York Times, first as the Pacific Northwest correspondent, then as a national enterprise reporter. In 2006, Mr. Egan won the National Book Award for his history of people who lived through the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time. In 2001, he won the Pulitzer Prize as part of a team of reporters who wrote the series How Race Is Lived in America. Mr. Egan is the author of five books, including "The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest," and "Lasso the Wind, Away to the New West." He lives in Seattle.