Huckabee: Dumb Like a Fox?

In response to my Huckabee posts, one of the RBC’s brilliant and well-informed readers sent me the following missive, which I think has quite a bit of merit. His analysis has the advantage of not explaining Huckabee’s behavior by assuming he’s stupid (which is almost surely a mistake with someone able to get reelected multiple times in a competitive state, and to pull off a big win in Iowa with few resources), but by starting from the fact that he’s ambitious and under-resourced. His policy positions flow from his ambition, and not from a deep foundation of faith. Could be!

Mr. Teles,

I’ve been reading your blog posts about Huckabee’s tax plan and general hucksterism. While I agree in general with your points that Huckabee is bad news, I think your analysis is missing something. Namely, his “Fair Tax” proposal is best understood not as a policy position but as a political gambit. Huckabee faced long odds and had very little money in 2007. By adopting the Fair Tax platform, he was able to buy some free ground game. This helped with his improbable showing in the Iowa straw poll (see this discussion at National Review), which helped him get more money and free media attention. I suspect the FairTaxers helped with his caucus organizing as well.

If he’s smart, he’s probably trying to figure out a way to quietly dump the Fair Tax and minimize the fallout from the FairTaxers. And I think, in general, he is smart. As an Arkansan, I’ve seen him govern from the center on economic policy, raising taxes even more than he lowered them. He worked well with the Democratic-dominated legislature–for real, not in the bogus way Bush claimed in 2000. He has considerable political skills, as argued by the foremost student of Arkansas politics, Jay Barth. Barth says that he learned by watching Clinton. But in contrast to Clinton, he hasn’t built a strong network of supporters to buoy his presidential run. Clinton had the Arkansas democratic machine behind him in 92. Huckabee doesn’t even have the Republican-owned Arkansas newspaper in his corner. So he’s had to improvise, and he’s done a damn fine job of it dollar for dollar.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.