What If Huckabee Were the Nominee?

Huckabee campaigning in Orange County, Calif. last January. (Photo by Stumper)

This was never going to be a good year for the GOP. But would it have been better for Mike Huckabee than John McCain?

From the start, it was clear that the Republican presidential nominee--no matter who he was--would be"running to succeed the most unpopular president in modern history, in what is quite possibly the most politically hostile environment a Republican has faced since the Great Depression." Which is why most objective observers applauded when the party picked McCain last spring. An unorthodox Republican who'd broken with the GOP on immigration, campaign-finance reform, earmarks and global warming, McCain was seen--thanks to his bipartisan credentials and durable, "different kind of conservative" brand--as the only candidate with a chance of distancing himself from President George W. Bush and surviving the inevitable Democratic tsunami. "If the Republicans nominate anyone other than John McCain, they are doomed to defeat," wrote conservative columnist Richard Baehr in January. "McCain on the other hand, has a real shot at winning."

But now that experts are pondering a potential Barack Obama landslide, the case for McCain isn't quite so clear. Some might argue that, at the end of the day, a Democrat would've won no matter what; that may be true. But it's also true that McCain is particularly ill-suited to confront the two defining political challenges that have cropped up since he clinched the Republican nomination in March.

On one hand, the emergence of the smooth, youthful Obama as the Democratic standard-bearer has thrown the less appealing aspects of McCain's otherwise admirable character--his age, his recklessness, his stilted speaking style--into sharp relief. On the other, the emergence of the current economic meltdown as The Only Issue That Matters has made it pretty much impossible for McCain--a longtime proponent of deregulation who's otherwise shown little interest in (or expertise on) the economy over his 26 year Congressional career--to credibly connect with struggling middle-class voters. Taken together, these two developments explain why Obama is leading by six points in the national polls and more than 100 votes on the electoral map. Sure, John McCain is losing because he's a Republican. But he's also losing because he's John McCain.

Which got me wondering: would any other Republican be doing better at this point? And that's when I remembered the name "Mike Huckabee."

I know what you're thinking. Huckabee? The goofy Arkansas governor/former Baptist minister/weight-loss spokesmodel who spent an unsettling amount of time with Chuck Norris?  That's right--the same. Now, this isn't to say the GOP should have nominated Huckabee last spring. I'll leave the retrospective arm-chair quarterbacking to professional Republicans. But it is interesting to consider how the current political situation--which seems as if it were designed to highlight McCain's weaknesses--would've played perfectly to Huckabee's particular (and peculiar) strengths.

The first--and most important--factor is the economy. Back in primary season, the conventional rap against Huckabee was that by nominating a total foreign-policy neophyte the Republicans would forfeit their most potent electoral advantage (especially if Democrats were "foolish" enough to pick someone as inexperienced as Obama). But with homeowners struggling and the world's financial markets teetering on the brink of collapse, foreign-policy expertise is hardly the trump card the GOP once hoped it'd be. (Just ask John McCain.) What the party could use right now is a candidate who can connect with the much-burdened middle class. I suspect that Huckabee would be doing a better job than McCain-and perhaps even Obama.

During the primaries, the press attributed Huckabee's ascent to his appealing sense of humor. But I always thought that his substantive message--a unique brand of Republican economic populism--was the main factor fueling his candidacy. While his rivals obsessed over cutting corporate tax rates, Huckabee focused on kitchen-table economic concerns. "I am not interested in being the candidate of Wall Street but of Main Street," he told the Politico last August. "Wealthy CEOs get paid 500 times what the average worker does, but they are not necessarily 500 times smarter or harder working and that is wrong." Now everyone's doing the whole "Main Street vs. Wall Street" routine.

In Arkansas, Huckabee passed a minimum wage hike and a statewide smoking ban; on the stump, he advocated "giv[ing] every American the same kind of health care that Congress has" and sympathized with people "who have worked for 20 and 30 years for companies... [then] get the pink slip and [are] told 'I'm sorry, but everything you spent your life working for is no longer here.' At the time, Huckabee's economic populism provoked the ire of fiscal conservatives. But in the wake of last month's Wall Street meltdown, I suspect that swing voters would've found his empathy and indignation far more appealing than McCain's unconvincing zigzags. And by emphasizing his hardscrabble, blue-collar roots and 13 years of executive experience--neither of which Obama possesses--I'm willing to bet that he would've blunted some of the Illinois senator's post-meltdown bounce. When Obama talks about suffering and governing, it's theoretical. Huckabee has lived it--and that comes across.

Economic populism isn't Huckabee's only selling point. It took until August (and the arrival of Sarah Palin) for McCain to win over Republican base and get his party's ground game-which relies on excited volunteers-up and running. A social conservative and former Baptist minister, Huckabee would've riled up the die-hards starting last spring--and he would've made Palin's presence on the ticket, which has arguably hurt McCain more than it's helped him, completely unnecessary. McCain's age and decades in Congress have only made it easier for Obama to present himself as a fresh, outside-the-Beltway change agent. But Huckabee would've largely neutralized Obama's advantage here: he's only six years older than the Illinois senator and hasn't served a day in Washington. As Obama likes to point out, McCain has voted with President Bush "90 percent of the time." But absent a D.C. paper trail, Democrats would've had a harder time tying Huckabee to the toxic White House. Finally, Huckabee is a far better debater than McCain; he's funny, pithy and direct where McCain is awkward and meandering--and he probably would've given Obama a run for his money at Ole Miss and Belmont. 

Does this mean Huckabee would've been a perfect--or even plausible--nominee? Hardly. His controversial flat-tax Fair Tax idea has the potential to produce massive tax increases for most Americans and massive tax cuts for the wealthy, according to independent studies. His governorship in Arkansas was shadowed by scandal. His staunch social conservatism--and religious fundamentalism--would've alienated a potentially fatal bloc of swing voters. His gaffes would've made Joe Biden blush. When it comes to fundraising, he's even feebler than McCain. And then there's Chuck Norris. For all I know, Huckabee would've been trailing Obama by 12 percent in the polls at this point.

Still, it's hard to deny how well-suited he'd be, at least in theory, to handling the political challenges currently plaguing McCain. The way things are going now, Obama will be seeking a second term in 2012. Will conditions be as favorable for Huckabee then as they are now? Who knows. But I suspect he'll be fixing to find out.