The Huckabee Republicrats

At a rally at a Ft. Lauderdale executive airport hanger on Wednesday night, Mike Huckabee told the crowd that if he's elected president, he'll be "going down to the Internal Revenue Service and nailing a sign to the door that says 'Going Out of Business.'" Outside of his anti-IRS posturing, though, his stump speech of late borrows heavily from pro-good-government, populist ideas about how to make the economy work for working people, from criticizing free trade deals to calling out Wall Street Republicans for neglecting the working class.

As discussion of the economy rises to the top of the agenda in the primary, Huckabee has been sure to pound on his populist message here in Florida. Recent polls have put him at just 15 percent, making it unlikely that he'll claim the state on Tuesday, but Huckabee has made inroads not just with his evangelical base, but with blue-collar conservatives of all stripes who want the government to work better for them.

"Let's make sure what recovers first is the hardworking people of America," he told the crowd of around 200 that gathered at this last-minute rally. "It works so much better when we make sure government doesn't get any bigger than it has to, but there are some things that government ought to do."

"I want us to be a country where whoever you are and wherever you come from, this country works for you," he continued.

By most reasonable accounts, Huckabee's plan to instate a "FairTax" and do away with the IRS runs counterintuitive to his populist rhetoric, as its massive sales tax is likely to hit the lower and middle classes the hardest. But many of these same voters are drawn to his record in Arkansas, where he used tax increases to finance improvements to the school and road systems.

His opponents and much of the Republican establishment have painted his populism and record as governor as weaknesses, but they might actually be the key to his success with conservative voters who recognize the value of government -- and not just when it comes to keeping gays from marrying and women from having abortions. It's not a big enough block to win Florida or the primary for Huckabee -- not yet at least -- but he has staked out an edge with the growing number of Republican voters who support investment in the public school system, government action on climate change, and tighter regulation of big business, departing in many ways from what has been the established norm in the party.

"[The Republican establishment] wants to criticize that he raised taxes in Arkansas, but when he became governor roads were ranked 50th and schools were ranked 49th," said Rodney Rogers, a mortgage consultant from Hollywood, Florida serving as the volunteer co-chair for the campaign in Miami-Dade County. "They raised taxes because people in Arkansas voted to raise taxes, because they wanted to fix their roads and schools because they were a mess."

Decked in a Huckabee shirt, hat, and sticker, Rogers says he's no fan of the IRS and thinks Huckabee's FairTax plan is "revolutionary," but he's comfortable with a candidate with a record of using tax dollars to improve public resources, and who's willing to depart from the Republican establishment on economic issues to address the real needs of Americans.

These voters here see Huckabee as a new kind of conservative -- one who might actually bring the "compassion" that George W. Bush once promised, who doesn't love taxes but who is willing to invest in public programs that help middle and lower-class Americans.

"In some ways he's an old Republican, a Reagan kind of guy, but in a lot of ways he's a new kind of guy. He's concerned about issues that Democratic candidates would also be concerned about, such as the environment and helping the poor," says John Cross, pastor of South Biscayne Baptist Church in North Port, Florida and a Huckabee supporter. "There's a new kind of conservative I guess that realizes that, for instance, we're not only for life, which means not only for this child being given the opportunity to live, but trying to help take care of that child if the mom needs help when the child is born."

Cross isn't alone in his read on these changes in the conservative establishment working in Huckabee's favor. A 2005 study of political typologies conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press seemed to capture these changes in the conservative coalition, noting that in their 1987 and 1994 voter surveys, the Republican Party relied solely on the support of social and small-government conservatives. But by their 1999 survey, a growing body of populist Republicans -- mostly low-income and financially insecure -- accounted for nearly a third of their base. The majority of these populist Republicans were Southern and religious, favoring regulation, aid programs, and government enforcement of moral values.

These populists, the study found, had coalesced into a pro-government faction of the conservative base by 2005, accounting for 10 percent of registered voters. Eighty percent of these voters said they believe the government should do more to help those in need, 83 percent said too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies, and 61 percent said that that environmental regulations are worth the cost. Sixty-six percent believe government regulation is necessary to protect the public interest, and 62 percent agreed that the immigrants from other countries strengthen American society.

For these voters, Huckabee might just be the perfect candidate. He calls for constitutional amendments to outlaw abortion and gay marriage, appealing to their desire for a president who uses the government to legislate morality. He brings populist promises about strengthening Main Street while regulating Wall Street to bring back balance to a system that these voters feel has been weighted in favor of the wealthy. Many of these voters draw from their religious beliefs and personal experiences in the working class to recognize a moral need for helping struggling Americans through government safety nets and strengthening the public school system, areas where Huckabee has placed more emphasis than his Republican counterparts.

Health care is another area where Huckabee has been more willing to admit that the current system isn't working for most Americans. At the Wednesday rally, a small group of retirees were on hand to thank him for being the only Republican candidate to sign on to the Divided We Fail pledge that AARP, SEIU, and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) have been pushing to the candidates, asking them to commit to making affordable, quality health care available for all, strengthening Social Security, and making prescription drugs more affordable top legislative issues for them as president.

And especially among his evangelical base, where concern about climate change has developed into a "creation care" movement, his support for government regulations to control emissions has set him apart among Republicans. Other than Huckabee and John McCain, the Republican candidates have been loath to endorse government regulation in fear of angering the big business portion of the base. Huckabee has come out in favor of a cap-and-trade system, raising fuel economy standards in automobiles, and investment in alternative energy, declaring that "conservation ought to be a hallmark of the conservative movement."

His policy positions in these areas give him an inroads with not just social conservatives, but others who recognize the economic and environmental realities of our time, says Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland Church, a 12,000-member evangelical congregation just north of Orlando. Hunter has been at the heart of some controversy in the evangelical movement in recent years, after he stepped down from his post as president-elect of the Christian Coalition of America in 2006 following disagreements with the coalition's board of directors; Hunter wanted to see the group expand their agenda to issues like global warming, poverty, and AIDS, but the group was unwilling to budge from focusing on gay marriage and abortion. He's been an outspoken critic of the Republican establishment for neglecting these issues as well, and a leader among the growing number of conservatives who identify with his vision for a government that's responsive to people's needs.

"Yes, we'd love to have lower taxes, but we'd love even more for government and private industry and the faith communities to be able to cooperate to help people in need with support systems that really make a difference," said Hunter. "Whether or not taxes are lowered is not the real question. The question is how well are we assisting people who really have needs. Those questions are going to divide the very simplistic, very monolithic voices that are attacking Huckabee and McCain. Rush Limbaugh and the rest of those voices that are self-appointed spokesmen to define conservatism in America simply aren't resonating with the general population."

Huckabee's more populist and pro-government stances on these issues have created concern on the right that if he wins the nomination, he would split the conservative coalition between social and fiscal conservatives. But if his upset in Iowa and second-highest delegate count thus far are an indication, a sizable slice of voters welcome a split if it will force the rest of the coalition to adopt new stances. It doesn't look like this faction is large enough to help him win Florida, but even if he doesn't claim the state or the nomination, the viability of his candidacy is a harbinger of changes in the party, according to Hunter, and illustrates a constituency that the GOP will need to figure out how to deal with.

"I see it as a great benefit that it divides the coalition," said Hunter. "I think there's a growing number of conservatives that say no, we want a government that is effective in helping people out. It's not the answer, but it's not the enemy either."

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