I'm going to confess an unpopular opinion (among liberals at least) and say that as much as I enjoy The Daily Show, Jon Stewart is usually not that good an interviewer when it comes to political figures. He's about two-thirds of a good interviewer—there are always some good questions, but he usually misses opportunities to ask critical follow-ups, and when his interviewee is struggling, he'll often jump in with a joke. Which is his job, of course—it's a comedy show, and he's a comedian—but it also has the effect of letting his subject off the hook.
Last night though, Stewart did an extremely revealing interview with Mike Huckabee, one that cast into sharp relief what Huckabee's 2016 presidential campaign is going to be about. Huckabee's chances of becoming the GOP nominee are pretty small, but he's still going to be an important candidate, one who is likely to stick around after many others flame out. You can watch an extended version of the interview here, but this is what aired:
The topic is Huckabee's new book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. The book comes out today, so I'm going to have to rely on what Huckabee has said about it and not the actual text, but the topic is what we might call his version of the Two Americas: not the haves and the have-nots, but the heartland and the coasts. Huckabee refers to these two worlds as "Bubbleville," made up of the bubbles of Washington, D.C., New York, and Hollywood, and "Bubbaville," where the real people live.
This is a familiar dichotomy often presented in conservative politics: you have the real Americans who live in small towns, go to church, love country music, wave the flag, and have "values," who are contrasted with the pretentious, licentious, condescending urbanites. But one of the fascinating things about this interview is that Huckabee—perhaps conscious of the audience watching—won't even take ownership of the very thing on which he's basing his campaign:
Stewart: It sounds like there's an idea that the people who live on the coasts are not real, that you're talking about—the Bubbas are real, and we're not.
Huckabee: No, it's not a matter of reality, it's a matter of different perspectives. I'll give you an example. There's a big difference between people who are well-educated and people who are smart. And a lot of people who are very well-educated—say, the Harvard faculty—believe that the people who live out in this part of the world where I live, in flyover country [note: Mike Huckabee actually lives in Florida], those red states that people think, "Those people are nuts"...
Stewart: But you believe that the Bubbas are better than the Bubbles.
Huckabee: No, different.
Stewart: No, better. You believe they're better. You wrote a book called God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. You believe they're better.
Huckabee: Here's the point. I want to explain who we are to the people who live in the Bubbles. Because those of us who live in Bubbaville, we get the people in the Bubbles, because all the television shows and movies are all about the people in the Bubbles.
Stewart: No, you don't get it.
Huckabee: Six and a half years, I've come to New York, and I've seen the difference in the attitudes and lifestyles and culture. It's not that one is better.
Stewart: Yes it is. You believe one is better.
Huckabee: Well if it is, it would be Bubbaville.
That sure took a lot of effort to wring that admission out of him. But let's move on. Later, Stewart brought up the fact that Huckabee has criticized Jay-Z and Beyonce for the former's vulgar lyrics and the latter's suggestive dance moves. He previously said about Jay-Z, "Does it occur to him that he is arguable crossing the line from husband to pimp by exploiting his wife as a sex object?" (because when the two appear on stage together, it must be Jay-Z making the decisions about what they'll perform and how).
Stewart then played a clip of Huckabee on his show playing bass for Ted Nugent performing "Cat Scratch Fever" ("Well I make the pussy purr with a stroke of my hand/They know they gettin' it from me…") and said, "You excuse that type of crudeness because you agree with his stance on firearms, but you don't approve of Beyonce because she seems alien to you. Maybe the problem is Bubba is in a bubble." He went on to note that country music is full of crudeness. "Johnny Cash shot a man just to watch him die!" Stewart said. "That's some gangsta shit!" Huckabee tried to argue that "Cat Scratch Fever" is "an adult song, geared for adults." Right.
And as the interview closed, Huckabee added one more pitch for Bubba's superiority: "There's a difference between education and smart. If your car breaks down in the middle of the night on a country road, who do you want coming by: an MBA in a beamer, or do you want a couple of good ol' boys in a pickup truck with a tool box in the back?"
Before I get to the politics of all this, let me say: Oh for frack's sake. Seriously? That's supposed to tell us something about the cultural superiority of the red states? You can come up with a million different situations in which you might need some assistance requiring specialized knowledge. If I need my car fixed, I want someone who knows how to fix cars. If I'm having a heart attack, Huckabee's good ol' boys probably aren't going to be able to help.
In any case, this all makes clear that Huckabee is going to be the candidate of cultural resentment. He wants to be the spokesperson for those who feel that they're looked down upon by the elites, and for years, what politicians like Huckabee have fed those people is a narrative that says, "No, you're the ones who are better, and it's the coastal elitists who are worthy of scorn. The places where you live are brimming with virtue, the cultural products you prefer are superior to those preferred by other people, you are the real Americans. Those bastards are nothing compared to you." I particularly like Huckabee's repeated invocations of the Harvard faculty, a stereotype that among his intended audience will simultaneously evoke insecurity and contempt.
There is without question a sizeable market within the Republican Party for this kind of appeal. The problem is that it isn't large enough to get you the presidential nomination. If it was, then Sarah Palin would be the most popular politician in the party. But she isn't. In this CBS poll a few days ago, 30 percent of Republicans said they'd like to see Palin run for president, but 59 percent said they wouldn't. The numbers were almost exactly reversed for Mitt Romney, who's nobody's idea of an authentic culture warrior.
But no one can speak to those insecurities and resentments in a more folksy and appealing way than Huckabee, which is why he'll be a serious player in the presidential race. Then when it's over he can go back to Fox.
An earlier version of this post misquoted Huckabee as saying "NBA in a beamer," not "MBA in a beamer." It has since been corrected.