WASHINGTON -- Like Job after losing his camels and acquiring boils, the conservative movement is in distress. Mike Huckabee shreds the compact that has held the movement's two tendencies in sometimes uneasy equipoise. Social conservatives, many of whom share Huckabee's desire to "take back this nation for Christ," have collaborated with limited-government, market-oriented, capitalism-defending conservatives who want to take back the nation for James Madison. Under the doctrine that conservatives call "fusion," each faction has respected the other's agenda. Huckabee aggressively repudiates the Madisonians.
He and John Edwards, flaunting their histrionic humility in order to promote their curdled populism, hawked strikingly similar messages in Iowa, encouraging self-pity and economic hypochondria. Edwards and Huckabee lament a shrinking middle class. Well.
Economist Stephen Rose, defining the middle class as households with annual incomes between $30,000 and $100,000, says a smaller percentage of Americans are in that category than in 1979 -- because the percentage of Americans earning more than $100,000 has doubled from 12 to 24, while the percentage earning less than $30,000 is unchanged. "So," Rose says, "the entire 'decline' of the middle class came from people moving up the income ladder." Even as housing values declined in 2007, the net worth of households increased.
Huckabee told heavily subsidized Iowa -- Washington's ethanol enthusiasm has farm values and incomes soaring -- that Americans striving to rise are "pushed down every time they try by their own government." Edwards, synthetic candidate of theatrical bitterness on behalf of America's crushed, groaning majority, says the rich have an "iron-fisted grip" on democracy and a "stranglehold" on the economy. Strangely, these fists have imposed a tax code that makes the top 1 percent of earners pay 39 percent of all income tax revenues, the top 5 percent pay 60 percent, and the bottom 50 percent pay only 3 percent.
According to Edwards, the North Carolina of his youth resembled Chechnya today -- "I had to fight to survive. I mean really. Literally." Huckabee, a compound of Uriah Heep, Elmer Gantry and Richard Nixon, preens about his humble background: "In my family, 'summer' was never a verb." Nixon, who maundered about his parents' privations and wife's cloth coat, followed Lyndon Johnson, another miscast president whose festering resentments and status anxieties colored his conduct of office. Here we go again?