From the very beginning of the 2012 election cycle, the biggest theme of the Republican primary has been widespread dissatisfaction with all of the candidates.
The conservative base has never trusted Mitt Romney, the presumptive front-runner, because of his past history of espousing far more liberal policies. As a result, nearly every other candidate, from Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) to Herman Cain, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, has risen to the top of the polls at some point over the last six months.
Now, with Gingrich solidified as Romney’s main challenger after his victory in South Carolina, many within the party are so worried about both that they have begun increasingly talking about a brokered convention and a compromise candidate.
While names like Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), and former Florida governor Jeb Bush have been discussed, the one truly-formidable candidate out there is former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. And if President Barack Obama wins in November, Republicans will regret overlooking the candidate who finished with the second-highest number of delegates in 2008, far ahead of Romney.
The 2012 election is likely to be exceedingly negative, as the Obama campaign will blame poor economic performance on Republican obstruction and viciously attack his opponent in much the same way that George W. Bush did to John Kerry in 2004. Neither Romney, a wealthy plutocrat, nor Gingrich, a long-time Washington operative with a closet full of skeletons, are as charismatic or personable as Huckabee. More importantly, neither are positioned as well to attack Obama on his biggest electoral liability: His close association with people like Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner and the status quo in Washington, D.C.
In 2008, Huckabee ran as “a Main Street, not a Wall Street, Republican.” A politician of relatively modest means who went to Ouachita Baptist University and spent his entire career in Arkansas, he has the ability to connect with blue-collar voters that both Obama and Romney lack. Interestingly enough, he comes from the same small-town in Arkansas, Hope, as another impossibly cheerful and down-to-earth former governor who made a name for himself in national politics.
When Romney’s history as a private equity maven at Bain Capital became an issue in 2012, Gingrich was widely criticized for his series of clumsy attacks that many within the Republican Party viewed as anti-capitalist. In contrast, no one has been able to damage Romney as effectively as Huckabee did in 2008, telling voters he “wanted to be a president who reminds you of the guy you work with, not the guy who laid you off.”
To borrow an analogy from the president’s favorite sport, handing a politician as skilled as Huckabee a weapon as potent as Obama’s cringe-worthy “clinging to guns and religion” comments in 2008 is like trying to defend an alley-oop to LeBron James with a 5’11 165 point guard.
However, the very reason why Huckabee would have posed such a huge challenge to Obama is also why he was never given a chance by the Republicans in the first place.
Over the last four years, the party has drifted further to the right, especially in economic policy. They’ve embraced an Ayn Rand-inspired critique of the president based around the idea that his policies have stifled “job-creators,” promising to roll-back regulations and lower the marginal tax rates of the top 1% if they regain control of the White House.
Many point to the Tea Party movement as the reason for this development, but that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what inspired the populist outrage that began in 2009. The fiercest opposition to “Obamacare” came not because it expanded the size of the government but because it took money out of Medicare, which is why Republicans took back the House in 2010 by promising to protect existing entitlement programs.
Huckabee understood this, which is why he has labeled libertarians as the “real threat” to Republicans. Paul Ryan’s “Road Map to Prosperity,” which has become nearly unchallenged orthodoxy within the party, is built around a premise that isn’t likely to survive first contact with political reality: capping the growth of Medicare in order to finance tax cuts for the rich.
Over the next generation, the increasing amount of income inequality and rising unaffordability of health care are the two biggest challenges facing the American middle class. Ryan’s plan, and the corresponding libertarian influence on Republican thought, don’t represent much of a response to either problem, more likely to exacerbate their effects than ameliorate them.
In 2012, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has generated a lot of enthusiasm by being the only candidate challenging the status quo. But a platform built around drastically cutting the government in the midst of the worst recession in nearly a century doesn’t have nearly the upside of one built around raising taxes on the rich in order to save Medicare and Social Security.
That’s an argument Huckabee could credibly make against Obama, one that would appeal to Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street voters alike. Many see Paul’s ardent youthful following as a potential game-changer in American politics, but over the next generation, Christian Socialism could emerge as a far more powerful threat to the centrist status quo favored by both parties.
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