Huckabee: Triumph and Tragedy of the Reagan Revolution

Former Governor Mike Huckabee has described himself as a “paradoxical conservative,” quipping he’s conservative “just not angry about it.” Whether a clever branding formulation or a posture rooted in rigorous self-examination, the paradox he declares himself to be is indeed a major challenge for the conservative coalition forged by President Ronald Reagan. While each Republican candidate has presented himself as the heir to Reagan, Huckabee’s claim is the most problematic as he stands alone as both the triumph and tragedy of the Reagan Revolution.

Lost in the astonishment over the rise of an evangelical with an economic populist message and pointed critiques of the Bush Administration is that Huckabee is, in truth, not a Reagan conservative but a Reagan Democrat. When Senator Barry Goldwater launched the conservative movement in 1964 against Rockefeller Republicanism in 1964, the voters drawn to Huckabee now were those originally delivering ample majorities to President Johnson and his promise of a Great Society. When those voters felt betrayed by President Johnson’s civil rights agenda, his failures in the Vietnam War, and his inability to confront the counterculture, they turned not to Republican conservatives, but to independent George Wallace at their next opportunity in 1968. His vehemence on behalf of the working man and lower middle classes matched their frustration. They would pull the lever for Nixon in 1972 but with Reagan’s failed nomination in 1976, these voters were left without an alternative until 1980 and 1984. In those elections, the Reagan Democrats added to his first margin of victory and then the re-election landslide. However, the potency of the conservative movement’s success in the executive branch was undercut by the persistence of liberal Democratic majorities in the Congress. True, Republican conservatives felled a number of liberal giants in 1980, but they surrendered control in 1986, a year of tremendous popularity and success for Reagan.

Why? Again the reason lies with the Reagan Democrats.

The ideological composition of Reagan Democrats entails strength on national security and foreign affairs, traditional stands on cultural issues, and economic populism on the part of the government. Since the presidency is the foremost branch on matters of international affairs, Reagan Democrats naturally gravitated to the decisive anti-communism voiced by Reagan. Since Congress controls the power of the purse and liberal Democrats practice Santa Claus economics, Reagan Democrats voting for liberal Democrats to the Congress. When the Cold War ended, the Republican edge on national security disappeared. Moreover, when a nasty recession hit in 1991, the Reagan Democrats rebelled, enthusiastically supporting Patrick Buchanan’s “peasants with pitchforks” campaign against incumbent George H.W. Bush in 1992. Some Reagan Democrats remained in the party, but the rest were drawn to Perot’s independent candidacy and Bill Clinton’s promise of middle class tax cut in 1992. However, when President Clinton reneged by raising taxes in 1993) and allowed First Lady Hillary Clinton to propose a takeover of one-seventh of the economy in 1994, Reagan Democrats flocked back to the Republican Party, well remembering the party’s steadfastness in support of tax cuts. With Congress now a bulwark for deficit reduction and lower taxes, a durable Republican majority in the Congress soon followed. In no small coincidence, the newfound affection for Republican conservatism was mirrored at the state and local level, where stalwart conservatives won a majority of governorships and the two former bastions of liberalism – New York and Los Angeles.

In this milieu, Huckabee was emblematic of the Reagan Revolution’s triumph – a successful Republican governor in a Southern state long run by liberal Democrats.

To the immense frustration of conservatives, President Clinton won re-election and this arrangement of a majority voting in a Democratic president and a Republican Congress persisted through the 1996 and 2000 election cycles. (Yes, Bush was elected, but he did lose the popular vote and without September 11, it remains unknown whether Bush would have been such a formidable candidate in 2004.) Bush 43’s conservatism has been closer to Reagan than his father, but his easy inclination to augment the government’s reach as well a horrendous record on spending has spurred well-deserved criticism as to the authenticity of his conservative credentials. Bush recaptured wayward Reagan Democrats for the Republican Party, albeit marginally, in 2004 and earned the largest popular majority since Reagan in 1984. By 2006 however, the enormous difficulties encountered in Iraq and the contemptible corruption in evidence among congressional Republicans led to the party’s downfall in midterm elections and predictions of defeat in the upcoming 2008 presidential election. Worse, the volume of predictions regarding the demise of Reagan conservatism has risen, alleging not only are the current crop of movement’s leader out of touch, but its supporters as well.

Enter Mike Huckabee. While the conservative brand has been marred by the course of events abroad, fiscal mismanagement, and the immigration reform fiasco, Reagan Democrats want to remain in the Republican Party because while their economic anxieties leave them amenable to Democratic appeals, liberal political correctness and a negotiations first approach to the war on terrorism is anathema to them. With Reagan’s natural heir, Fred Thompson, channeling Calvin Coolidge on the campaign trail and all the other candidates either flawed or unresponsive to Reagan Democrats’ economic and social anxieties regarding globalization and runaway immigration, Huckabee earned their trust with piety worn on his sleeve and a message of solidarity in their struggle to get ahead economically. The Club for Growth was denounced as the Club for Greed, Mitt Romney was castigated as the “guy likely to lay you off,” and a remarkably harsh immigration plan has been proposed – in stark contrast to his record as governor. Despite a Foreign Affairs essay not worthy of a college Intro to American Foreign Policy class and a dubious record on taxes, Huckabee became a first tier candidate and shocked everyone with a solid win in the Iowa caucuses. Now he is the frontrunner and is being heralded, in combination with Democratic phenomenon Barack Obama, as a harbinger of “change” in contemporary politics.

And as such, Huckabee embodies the tragedy of the Reagan Revolution.

Instead of a small government enthusiast with conservative cultural views and a readiness to tackle the most pressing existential challenge since international fascism, the movement is successfully being contested by one of its step-children -- one unabashedly religious, skeptical of the free market, and clearly unprepared to lead the United States on the world stage. In a single election, a Huckabee candidacy would gravely weaken a conservative coalition painstakingly built over decades. If he lost, the recriminations over the outcome and what it meant for the conservative movement would be incapacitating. If he won, against all odds, the founding libertarian and traditionalist wings of the movement would be marginalized to a degree not experienced since the days of the New Deal.

An arduous walk in the wilderness while contemplating core principles would serve the conservative movement well, more so than a convenient ride hitched to a folksy preacher and his pithy put-downs of esteemed allies.

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