WASHINGTON -- The refusal of Mike Huckabee to enter the 2012 presidential race leaves a gap -- and not just a gap of social conservatism. Huckabee was also the Republican Party's leading practitioner of economic populism.
Compared to his GOP rivals four years ago, Huckabee sounded like William Jennings Bryan -- a comparison that would probably offend Huckabee less than it would most Republicans. He complained about overpaid CEOs and talked sympathetically of "people at the lower ends of the economic scale." His own up-from-poverty struggle lent credibility to his message.
Free-market purists went hard after Huckabee's record as Arkansas governor -- his tax increases, his statewide smoking ban, his 21 percent increase in the state minimum wage. Conservative activist Richard Viguerie tagged him a "Christian socialist."
But Huckabee gave at least as good as he got. His dismissed the libertarian Club for Growth, which ran ads against him, as the "club for greed." After an attack by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, Huckabee responded, "Grover's never been in government, doesn't have to balance a state budget. ... Grover's never been in a situation where he couldn't borrow money so he didn't have to raise taxes or tell old people he's just going to take them out of the nursing home and drop them on the curb."
During his presidential run, Huckabee's themes were more developed than his policies. His "fair tax" proposal -- replacing the progressive income tax with a national sales tax -- was not a natural populist cause. But when the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers came to make their presidential endorsement, they picked both Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee.
Nowadays there is limited Republican demand for economic populism. Among the current crop of GOP candidates, past activism on issues such as health reform is a more damaging scandal than past adultery. But beyond the primaries, a Republican nominee will require a more hopeful message than just budget cuts. A failing education system and a skills deficit have left America with lower socio-economic mobility than many European countries. A winning candidate will need to talk not only about austerity but about opportunity.
Which Republican has as the best chance of crafting a general-election message of economic mobility? A serious case can be made for Tim Pawlenty.