In a late December profile of Mike Huckabee, Time political reporter Michael Scherer captures a central talking point concerning Huckabee’s impressive (and once seemingly improbable) candidacy: “…as Huckabee now mounts his closing argument for the Iowa caucuses, he has moved full bore into the rhetoric of economic populism.” Briefly setting aside Scherer’s use of the qualifier “rhetoric,” the term “economic populism” (or simply “populism”) has become convenient shorthand in the media to describe how Huckabee differs from the orthodoxy of the other Republican presidential hopefuls. This is partially because he emphasizes his status as a “Main Street Republican”—one who, as Robynn Tysver writes for the Omaha World-Herald, “worked to improve schools and roads, touted preventive health care and pushed for health insurance for poor children” as governor of Arkansas. The populist tag also originates from conservative criticism of his fiscal policies. Huckabee increased some taxes while in Arkansas and has traded barbs with the free-market-favoring Club for Growth, leading some pro-business conservatives to characterize him as economically liberal; Matt Lewis’ title for an August blog entry on Townhall.com, “William Jennings Huckabee” is an apt example.
The Huckabee-William Jennings Bryan comparison has reappeared elsewhere within media coverage of Huckbee’s campaign as a means of describing his populist message. Does this mean that he really does bear a modern-day resemblance to Bryan? Relying on Michael Kazin’s fantastic biography of Bryan, it’s possible to discern some similarities between the two. On the campaign trail, Huckabee relies on consistent appeals to lower- and middle-class demographics, just as Bryan sought “middling Americans” to form the core of his supporters (196). Bryan would certainly appreciate Huckabee’s reference to the Club for Growth as the “Club for Greed,” though the former was more frequently aggressive in attacking corporations and big business. Bryan also sold his arguments well because his speechmaking talents were stunning; Huckabee doesn’t even measure up to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in this regard, but he is, nonetheless, quite good at presenting himself in a folksy manner, which has been critical to his success so far. Finally, Bryan actively sought to apply his evangelical Christianity—largely based upon the Social Gospel—to the public square. Likewise, Huckabee stated in a recent interview with Beliefnet that “the application of Christian principles in government ought to bring a greater sense of justice,” indicating how his own (more conservative) evangelicalism influences his public policy.
When it comes to economic populism, however, the similarities quickly cease. Bryan’s economic proposals were remarkably progressive by both the standards of his era and of the present day. He called for a federal bank insurance program nearly four decades before Franklin Roosevelt made the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation part of his New Deal reforms. At the 1896 Democratic national convention in Chicago, Bryan’s support for “free silver” led him to help create a party platform that “thoroughly repudiated” the more conservative economic policies of then-President (and fellow Democrat) Grover Cleveland; this marked a transition toward the modern liberal movement (55-56). In his concern for utility regulation, he called for public ownership of the railroads during the first decade of the 1900s, though many Democrats disagreed with him. And as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson from 1913-1915, he engineered legislation that created the progressive federal income tax.
In comparison, it is impossible to honestly refer to Huckabee as a modern-day economic populist. Ernest Dumas of the Arkansas Times (which has extensively covered Huckabee’s governorship) provides the central reason why in an analysis of Huckabee’s “FairTax” proposal. In short, FairTax is a wildly regressive plan that would not only disproportionately favor the richest Americans, it would also fail to generate the type of revenue necessary for even the basic functions of federal government. Additionally, as Dumas notes in a separate piece, “nothing in his [Huckabee’s] political past showed any particular sympathy for labor,” and he supports the extension of George W. Bush’s tax cuts. Yet it is FairTax that is most striking, because although Huckabee’s “Club for Greed” comment suggests a swipe at the legacy of “Reagonomics,” his proposal follows supply-side economic theory, just like every other major Republican candidate.
This is why Scherer’s refers to Huckabee’s populist appeals as merely “rhetoric,” and why, in the essay from The Revealer that I originally discussed last week, Jeff Sharlet finds that “Huckabee sounds like William Jennings Bryan, the Great Commoner” (emphasis mine). It is one thing to note that Huckabee has established minor differences from Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, and John McCain; it is quite another to claim those differences as populist, especially in relation to Bryan. Scherer and Sharlet have done their homework; it’s up to the rest of the media to follow suit.