And yet Huckabee’s poll numbers, which put him first in Iowa and a close second to Rudy Giuliani nationally, have continued their near-vertical climb unabated. In the Hawkeye State, that climb began (though few noticed it) in August, when Huckabee finished second to Romney in the Republican straw poll. As Buchanan himself points out to me, the effect was to force Sam Brownback out of the race and give Huckabee a chance to consolidate the state’s sizable religious-right voting bloc. And this he has done in spades: Huckabee is now the overwhelming choice of born-again Christians and weekly churchgoers in Iowa.
For many of these voters, his views on AIDS and homosexuality (“an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle”), not to mention his belief in creationism, aren’t seen as faux pas but badges of honor—and the dismay they provoke in saner quarters as cause to rally around him.
Being the premier holy roller in the race may be enough to capture Iowa for Huckabee. But in the states that follow, more will be required—which brings us to his economic populism. Unlike Buchanan, who called for steep tariffs on Japanese and Chinese goods (and would retort, if you called him a protectionist, “Yeah, and so were all four of the presidents up on Mount Rushmore”), Huckabee doesn’t embrace any proposals so nakedly mercantilist. Nor has he called, as Buchanan did, for a five-year freeze on legal immigration. “He hasn’t studied these issues like I did,” Buchanan says. “He’s receptive to them, he pays lip service to them, but he isn’t all the way there.”
But Huckabee does reject the concept of free trade in favor of “fair trade.” He says that the next president must “make it clear that we’re not going to continue to see jobs shipped overseas.” He denounces “immoral” CEO salaries and bemoans the GOP’s transformation into “a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street,” whereas he sees himself as “the candidate of Main Street.” His new immigration plan is so draconian that it earned the endorsement of a founder of the quasi-vigilante border-patrol outfit the Minutemen Project. And his position on health care—“Either give every American the same kind of health care that Congress has or make Congress have the same kind of health that every American has”—sounds less like Buchanan than, well, John Edwards.
In truth, Huckabee’s actual economic program is staggeringly vague. And what isn’t vague (his plan to demolish the IRS and replace all federal taxes with a national sales tax, for instance) amounts to economic quackery. But beyond that, there is an overriding political objection to the merger of populism with Christianism that Huckabee aims to pull off: Buchanan’s campaigns may have been a gas, but he also, um, lost.
On countless levels, however, 2008 is aeons away from 1996, let alone 1992. In each of his races, Buchanan was trying to topple a genuine, formidable front-runner: a sitting president, a Senate majority leader. But today it’s evident that, after a year of frantic campaigning, no such creature exists; indeed, Huckabee’s leap into the top tier is itself vivid proof of the point. The GOP too is a very different beast from what it was in the nineties: no longer the majority party in Congress, its foundations crumbling, its leadership dazed, confused, and helpless. When I recently asked a senior party operative if the Republican Establishment could block Huckabee from the nomination, he replied, with a tiny chuckle, “What Republican Establishment?”
More to the point, the conditions on the ground are arguably more conducive to populism now than in Pitchfork Pat’s heyday. In 1996, after all, the economy was in the midst of a historic boom, one that was on the verge of kicking into overdrive. Today, the situation is the reverse: Recession looms, the Dow sags, the housing and credit markets buckle. The economy has elbowed aside Iraq as the central locus of voter anxiety.
Hence the reason why the rise of Huckabee is causing so much consternation, even panic, among his fellow wannabe nominees. Though nobody sober believes that, even if he emerges triumphant in Iowa, Huckabee can win New Hampshire, his prospects in the next two contests (Michigan and South Carolina) are considerably better. Both are states whose industrial bases have been ravaged by foreign competition. Both have seen their property markets hammered by the credit crunch and the recent wave of foreclosures. And at least in South Carolina, the state that is often the sine qua non for securing the GOP nomination, the Evangelical vote is nearly as significant as it is in Iowa. If Huckabee wins there—and he currently leads—his momentum could prove unstoppable.
There are, naturally, a raft of reasons to doubt this scenario. Huckabee’s lack of money might trip him up on Tsunami Tuesday, February 5. Or Romney, with his advantages in dollars and organizational strength, might pull it together and become the Republican comeback kid in Iowa. What’s clear is that much is at stake. “The cause of economic nationalism is coming,” Buchanan concludes. “If the Republican Party doesn’t move toward it, it’s going to be destroyed.”