By the time the sixth or seventh candidate enters a Republican presidential primary, it’s usually tough to identify a unique quality that distinguishes him from those who came before. Most of the predictable niches—the Establishment candidate, the Religious Right candidate, the Conservative Absolutist candidate, the non-white/non-male outreach/token candidates, the outsider candidate, etc.—have already been filled.
With that pattern in mind, you might imagine Mike Huckabee missed his moment. At the time of his announcement last week, the GOP race already included a Religious Right tribune (Ted Cruz), an Evangelical Christian (Scott Walker), a fair-weather libertarian (Rand Paul), an outreacher (Marco Rubio), an outsider (Ben Carson), and a woman (Carly Fiorina). And in a purely electoral sense, Huckabee did miss his moment.
Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister, had a better opportunity to consolidate the religious conservative vote against the donor candidate in 2008 than he does now, and even then he came up short. Eight years ago, as Nate Cohn wrote recently at the New York Times, “religious conservatives had serious reservations about the two main candidates, John McCain and Mitt Romney.” This year things are different.
But this isn’t just a simple story about a hopeless underdog deluding himself about his odds, or a retread of so many GOP primaries where too many conservatives vie for the right wing vote and clear a path for the money guy.
Huckabee appears to be aware of his liabilities, and is thus angling not only for the evangelical vote, but for the old person vote in general. He’s adopted the view, unfathomable in modern Republican politics, that support programs for the elderly shouldn’t be tampered with, and not just for today’s seniors, but for at least a generation. By doing so he’s violated the GOP’s implicit pact that discourages members from accentuating the tensions between the party’s fiscal priorities and its aging political base. If he makes good on this cynical strategy, he will probably still lose, but his candidacy will have served a valuable and revealing purpose.
Let’s be clear up front that Huckabee’s positioning here is 100 percent cynical. As John McCormack of the neoconservative Weekly Standard reminded us last month, Huckabee was a proponent of the Republican consensus as recently as August 2012, when he wrote on his Facebook page that “Paul Ryan is being demonized for his suggested Medicare reforms. But the alternatives may be scarier.”
Today, Huckabee says he wouldn’t sign legislation codifying Ryan’s Medicare reforms if he were president, and lambasted New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s proposal to further raise the Social Security retirement age over time. In Iowa this week, Huckabee told a crowd of supporters, “It is a foolish thing for the government to involuntarily confiscate money from your pockets and paychecks for 50 years, and then suddenly tell you, oh, we were just kidding."
What he didn’t mention is that his proposed “Fair Tax”—a hefty tax on consumption—would disproportionately increase costs for fixed-income seniors, who spend most of their money, and thus operate in effect much like a Social Security benefit cut.
But for political purposes, it doesn’t really matter that Huckabee isn’t acting out of compassion for the elderly or the poor. What matters is that he’s motivated enough to pull back the curtain on the party’s double dealing.
For the entirety of Barack Obama’s presidency, Republicans have taken an awkward, cynical, schizophrenic view of entitlements. They have voted with near unanimity for a budget that would radically overhaul Medicare, but have promised (unworkably) to isolate the old and nearly old from any disruptions. They have largely sidelined their preferred Social Security reforms, but salivated over the prospect of voting for a cut to Social Security benefits when they thought Obama might sign it. They have railed against the Affordable Care Act for reducing spending on Medicare while voting for budgets that preserve those very cuts.
The only way to make sense of this mishmash is to remember that the GOP owes its political livelihood to the elderly. To pursue conservative goals, without obliterating their coalition, Republicans must twist themselves into pretzels. They must detest spending, but only on those other people. Their rhetorical commitments are impossible to square with their ideological and substantive ones, though, and the agenda they’ve promised to pursue when they control the government again would not exempt retirees and near retirees in any meaningful way. At the end of the day they can only keep their promises to one interest group, and it’s not going to be the elderly.
In effect, Huckabee is promising to lay this all out for Republican primary (i.e. older) voters, and place his rivals in the exquisitely awkward position of having to explain themselves. Normally the way things work in Republican primaries is that candidates seek advantage by drawing attention to their opponents’ insufficient commitment to conservatism. Huckabee’s big bet is that—in this one substantive realm, where conservatism and voter self-interest point in opposite directions—he can do the same by running to the left. Watching him test this theory, even in defeat, will be fascinating.