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Democrats Beware: An Economic Populist Is Rising In the GOP's Presidential Primary

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Leave it to the New York Times' crack campaign team to take what is a truly interesting story from the Republican presidential primary and boil it down into an uninteresting, hackneyed attempt to mimic People magazine-style nonsense (Suggestion for a new Times slogan: All the fluff that's fit to print). The Gray Lady - like almost every other major news outlet that is covering the campaign - uses former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's (R) surprising second-place finish in the Iowa Straw Poll as an excuse to write not about the unique nature of Huckabee's substantive message, but to make the claim that the only reason he is getting ahead is because his "humor amounts to a style of politicking that many audiences have found engaging."

I'm not saying Huckabee isn't funny, but I am saying that he also has an extraordinarily different message than any of the other Republican presidential contenders - a populist economic message that may be shunned by conservative operatives and K Street lobbyists in the GOP-dominated Money Party in Washington, but likely has an appeal among rank-and-file working-class Republican voters. Though Beltway reporters are too insulated in their cliched views of politics to see how this economic populist appeal may be fueling Huckabee's candidacy, it is a phenomenon Democrats should be well aware of if they want to win the White House in 2008.

Here is Huckabee quoted on the AFL-CIO's webpage from the recent Republican presidential debate:

"The most important thing a president needs to do is to make it clear that we're not going to continue to see jobs shipped overseas, jobs that are lost by American workers, many in their 50s who for 20 and 30 years have worked to make a company rich, and then watch as a CEO takes a $100 million bonus to jettison those American jobs somewhere else. And the worker not only loses his job, but he loses his pension. That's criminal. It's wrong."

Huckabee followed this up by telling The Politico: "I am not interested in being the candidate of Wall Street but of Main Street. 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."

On trade, it's the same thing. Here's Huckabee at a recent campaign stop in Iowa:

"If somebody in the presidency doesn't begin to understand that we can't have free trade if it's not fair trade, we're going to continually see people who have worked for 20 and 30 years for companies one day walk in and get the pink slip and told ï'm sorry but everything you spent your life working for is no longer here."... I'd like to prove that this presidency is not going to be just up for sale. If that's the case, let's just put it on eBay and be done with it. I'd like to think it's going to be more about our principles, not just our pockets."

Even on health care, Huckabee populist line seems to be working with GOP audiences. Notice this report from Raw Story:

"If you want to know how to fix it, I've got a solution," Huckabee said at the Republican debate. "Either give every American the same kind of healthcare that Congress has or make Congress have the same kind of health care that every American has." As he spoke, the electronic graphs rose dramatically for both moderate and conservative Republicans, from a neutral reading of 50 into the 80's.

This language sounds more populist and more tough than many (if not most) Democrats in Washington. And remember - Huckabee is no stranger to going against the economic orthodoxy of the Republican cabal in Washington. He signed a minimum wage hike and a statewide smoking ban in Arkansas, raising the ire of the fringe right-wing Club for Growth. When Grover Norquist's corporate front-group attacked Huckabee for his refusal to slash some state health care programs, Huckabee all but called Norquist an out-of-touch Washington insider in a meeting with the right-wing Washington Times:

"Grover's never been in government, doesn't have to balance a state budget, never had a state constitution forcing him to deal with a balanced budget. Grover's never been in a situation where he couldn't borrow money so he didn't have to raise taxes or tell old people he's just going to take them out of the nursing home and drop them on the curb. If Grover wants to run for governor, there's an election next year in Arkansas. He can get his residency requirements lined up. And there are 36 other states he can run in next year."

Beltway reporters, insulated by the chatter of other Beltway reporters, see America only through red and blue lenses. This is why a newspaper like the New York Times looks at an unorthodox candidate like Huckabee and attributes his surprising success just to style. Doing that means reporters don't actually have to engage in any "reporting" or "work" or self-evaluation of how the caricatures they use in their journalism are completely divorced from actual reality. Instead, they can just write about fluff and call it "reporting" and "analysis."

But as I noted in a piece for the Washington Post last year, public opinion data shows that on many core economic issues, the free market fundamentalists and economic darwinists who comprise the Republican elite in Washington are not only way out of step with the majority of the country, but way out of step even with the majority of Republican voters. This is the lesson Democrats in Washington learned in the last election when they saw candidates like Sherrod Brown (D-OH) reject the Republican-lite methods of the Beltway "strategists" and instead run winning campaigns on full-throated economic populism (think trade, jobs, wages, health care, corruption, etc.) in Republican states.

Huckabee, in other words, is differentiating himself not because he's funny, as lazy Washington reporters would have us believe, but because he sounds like a mainstream American on economic issues. (Sidenote: The only national beat reporter covering the '08 race that has actually done any real reporting on the substance of Huckabee's campaign is M.E. Sprengelmeyer at the Rocky Mountain News who astutely notes that Huckabee tells audiences he is not a "wholly owned subsidiary" of Wall Street, and uses "a populist pitch" revolving around talk about how "the Republican Party being in danger of being kept out of power for a generation if it's viewed as fighting for corporate interests, not the interests of real people.")

Unlike other leading Republican candidates who say more regressive tax cuts can fix bridges or who say Corporate America needs even more and bigger tax breaks, Huckabee is actually talking about the issues of corporate power and inequality that most people in the country understand is central to the challenges America faces.

I want to be clear - I think a lot of Huckabee's rhetoric is just that: Rhetoric. I say that because while he shows courage in actually talking about these issues that many other Republicans (and some Democrats) refuse to talk about, he supported many typical regressive Republican policies in Arkansas and on the campaign trail today he reverts back to failed right-wing ideologies when he talks about "solutions," offering up proposals that would actually make things far worse. As just one of many examples, notice that the Atlantic reports that his Iowa operation is being fueled by a group whose single goal is replacing the mildly progressive income tax with one flat national sales tax - a proposal that Huckabee supports even though experts (including top Reagan administration economic officials) admit would result in a massive tax increase on the middle-class and a massive tax cut for those CEO rip-off artists Huckabee rails against.

Nonetheless, in a campaign setting where rhetoric is (unfortunately) everything, the real story about Huckabee's spurt is the story of populism's acendance and cross-party appeal. As a Democrat who wants to see Democrats win the White House in 2008, I shudder to think about a candidate like Huckabee using this posture to triangulate in a general election. You can, for example, pretty easily imagine him seizing the rhetorical mantle of populism against a candidate like Hillary Clinton - a candidate who brags about pocketing big cash from lobbyists, who surrounds herself with K Street mercenaries, who takes in more health industry money than any other lawmaker in Congress, and who appears on the cover of Fortune magazine as Big Money's handpicked candidate. And as I've stated so many times before, the only way to fight off a general election candidate like Huckabee - or any other Republican candidate - is for Democratic candidates to finally embrace populism for themselves, rather than shunning it in an effort to get approval from their Wall Street wing.

That said, when I take off my partisan hat and speak just as an economic progressive, I have to admit I think it's a pretty good sign that one Republican candidate is at least talking about these core economic issues (even if he's only just talking about them). It means that whether the elite Washington media ignores it or not, economic populism may end up taking center stage in both party's primaries - and that's a good thing. For too long, we've had a political debate in this country that seeks to avoid - rather than confront - the kitchen table economic issues that ordinary Americans face every day. Here's hoping Huckabee's rhetoric means that's changing.

originally published in Working for Change

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David Sirota is a full-time political journalist, best-selling author and nationally syndicated newspaper columnist living in Denver, Colorado. He blogs for Working Assets and the Denver Post's PoliticsWest website. He is a Senior Editor at In These Times magazine, which in 2006 received the Utne Independent Press Award for political coverage. His 2006 book, Hostile Takeover, was a New York Times bestseller, and is now out in paperback. He has been a guest on, among others, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and NPR. His writing, which draws on his (more...)

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