WASHINGTON – Before Mike Huckabee took the stage at the launch of his presidential campaign Tuesday, crooner Tony Orlando warmed up the crowd with his 1970s hit, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.”
It was a fitting prelude, because Huckabee’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination is also a throwback: The former Arkansas governor is the candidate of the little guy at a time when big money is ascendant in politics.
“I never have been and I’m not going to be the favored candidate of those in the Washington-to-Wall Street corridor of power,” he told supporters at a kickoff rally in Hope, Arkansas, the hometown he shares with Bill Clinton. “I will be funded and fueled not by the billionaires, but by working people across America who will find out that $15 and $25 a month contributions can take us from Hope to higher ground.”
It’s a worthy aim, but the only place $15 and $25 contributions are going to take him is to irrelevance.
American politics, and Republican politics in particular, have become entirely about big money in this election cycle, when candidates will be sponsored by billionaires who have been freed by the Supreme Court to give unlimited sums to super PACs. Huckabee is running against all that, making a populist attack on Wall Street, free-trade deals and efforts to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits.
“I don’t have a global foundation or a taxpayer-funded paycheck to live off of,” he told his supporters Tuesday, a reference to Hillary Rodham Clinton and to the various senators in the race. “I don’t come from a family dynasty, but a working family,” he said, contrasting himself with Jeb Bush. “I grew up blue collar, not blue blood.”
This worked fairly well for Huckabee in 2008, where grass-roots support among blue-collar voters and religious conservatives propelled him to victory in the Iowa caucuses before his lack of money kept him from competing nationally. But this time, the nominating process for Republicans, like the tea party movement earlier, has been consumed by corporate interests and a few of the wealthiest Americans. A lone billionaire can keep an otherwise uncompetitive candidate viable – but an otherwise viable candidate will be out of luck if he or she doesn’t have a patron.
Huckabee wasn’t among the Republican candidates appearing in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago to kiss the ring of Sheldon Adelson, a major GOP contributor. He didn’t score an invite earlier this year to a forum hosted by the Koch brothers, the biggest donors of them all. Already, the anti-tax Club for Growth, backed by wealthy interests, has announced that it is beginning an ad campaign against him.
Huckabee joked about his status as the poor-man’s candidate in 2016. “If you want to give a million dollars, please do it,” he said (a request that, as The Washington Post’s Philip Bump pointed out, technically violates campaign finance laws). “I know most of you can’t.”
Those who can probably won’t, because his anti-corporate policies don’t suit them. “We don’t create good jobs for Americans by entering into unbalanced trade deals that forgo congressional scrutiny, and then looking the other way as the law is ignored so that we can import low-wage labor, undercut American workers, and drive wages lower than the Dead Sea,” Huckabee told his supporters.
He also took aim at fellow Republicans who propose restructuring entitlement programs: “If Congress wants to take away someone’s retirement, let them end their own congressional pensions, not your Social Security.”
Huckabee is less hostile to government than many of his rivals. He talked about spending more on veterans (they “should be getting the first fruits of our treasury, not the leftovers”) and on medical research (“focusing on cures instead of treatments saves money, lives and families”).
Huckabee, whose TV and radio gigs have made him a wealthy man since his 2008 run, is not a pure populist. His “fair tax” – a national sales tax – would disproportionately benefit the rich. But the (other) man from Hope hit many of the right notes Tuesday, particularly when he spoke about the large number of Americans in poverty because most Americans’ wages haven’t risen in decades.
“The power and money and political influence have left a lot of Americans lagging behind,” he said. “They work hard, they lift heavy things, and they sweat through their clothes grinding out a living. But they can’t seem to get ahead, or, in some cases, even stay even.”
This is an important message for Republican primary voters to hear. Too bad the super-rich won’t give them the chance.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.