Among the many dark horses who have enlivened the history of Republican presidential nominating contests, there have been few Seabiscuits more improbable than Patrick Joseph Buchanan. Twelve years ago, Buchanan’s insurgent campaign built upon his protest bid of four years earlier by attempting a novel fusion of rabid social conservatism with hot-eyed economic nationalism. The effort, which consumed more hours of my life than I care now to recall, was endlessly fascinating—and also, it seemed, plainly doomed to fail. The GOP race had an anointed front-runner, Bob Dole. It had a grotesquely funded challenger, Phil Gramm. It had a superrich outsider, Steve Forbes. It had a genial southern governor, Lamar Alexander. There simply didn’t seem to be much daylight for a modern day, religious-righteous incarnation of William Jennings Bryan.
Then all of a sudden, the wind shifted, and Buchanan’s sails caught the gust. He scored an out-of-nowhere victory in the Louisiana caucus, which kicked things off that year. He ran a close second to Dole in Iowa and beat him in New Hampshire. The Bobster, his future hanging by a thread, moved quickly to rally the Republican Establishment to thwart Buchanan, while endeavoring to co-opt the salient bits of his rival’s message—casting doubt on nafta (which Dole had eagerly supported), threatening retaliation against “unfair” trading partners (which no one could recall him ever whinging about in his nearly three decades as a staunchly free-trading senator). Although the strategy ultimately prevailed, it was not without its critics on the true-believing right. George Will, for one, assailed Dole for spouting “watery Buchananism.”
I mention this history—and that phrase in particular—because both have been rattling around my head since the onset of our current moment of unbridled Huckamania. Once again, we have a Republican nominating contest thrown into chaos by the rapid rise of a contender that the political class had almost uniformly written off as an abject no-hoper. Once again, the propulsion of the aspirant in question owes much to his organic, potent connection to the Christian right. And once again, the candidate’s sectarian appeal is being bolstered by a populist economic thrust that may, in the long run, prove equally pivotal.
Huckabee’s brand of populism isn’t nearly as strident (read lunatic) as Buchanan’s. But to describe it as watery doesn’t do it justice. Huckabee’s posture on matters of taxing, trading, and even faith represent something shrewder: Buchananism minus the bombast, the paranoia, the out-front efforts to court the clenched-fist-and-camouflage crowd. And in this regard, the message and the messenger are the same—which could well make them more formidable, and no less disconcerting, than Buchanan and his gospel were in 1996.
For all the differences in tone and temperament between Huckabee and Buchanan, the likenesses are striking, starting with their performance skills. Buchanan was an oratorical master, forever honing his laugh lines, massaging his cadences. Huckabee, a Baptist minister who enacted his first radio broadcast at age 11, employs a folksier style, but one no less effective. On topics of faith, he readily hits that dog-whistle pitch only Evangelicals can hear. And on other matters, he is equally adroit. “I’m a conservative,” he likes to say, “but I’m not mad at anybody”—a genius line, at once pithy and pointed. His sharp sense of humor is a rare asset in a race packed with stiffs and sourpusses. When a cell phone trilled during one of his speeches this year in Iowa, Huckabee quipped, without missing a beat, “If that’s Dick Cheney wanting me to go on a duck hunt, tell him I’m not doing it.”
Huckabee’s rhetorical mojo is a major reason for his status as a darling of the press. And it has allowed him, as it did Buchanan, to wage a guerrilla campaign, living off free media and thus compensating for his woeful lack of cash. Being perpetually broke is a substantial disadvantage in a presidential race. Duh. But it confers (or compels) certain freedoms that can actually benefit a candidate: the freedom from overweening staff, from poll-driven paralysis, and, crucially, from expectations. Indeed, as was the case with the rise of Buchanan, the sheer lightning-strike quality of the Huckabee ascendance is the source of its power.
Today, of course, Huckabee’s under-the-radarness is a thing of the past. For the past two weeks, he has been subjected to skin-blanching levels of exposure—and hair-raising scrutiny. What’s come out has not been pretty. That Huckabee asserted in 1992 that people with AIDS should be quarantined. That, as governor of Arkansas, he pushed for clemency on behalf of a convicted serial rapist who would commit the same crime, plus murder, after being released early from prison. That he received (indeed, solicited) at least $150,000 in gifts from constituents.