On Saturday, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee spoke at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in downtown Grand Rapids. Huckabee, whose Iowa victory was seen as a “surprise” by many in the corporate media, delivered a rightwing populist speech that appealed directly to voters in Michigan who are experiencing discontent over the state of Michigan’s economy. Unlike McCain and Romney–both of whom spoke within the past week in Grand Rapids–Huckabee went to great lengths to make himself appeal to those experiencing economic uncertainty in their lives.
Huckabee began by articulating what he believes are core Republican principles and contrasting his respect and adherence to those principles to what is being offered by candidates such as Mitt Romney and John McCain. Huckabee said that while those candidates have out spent and out organized him, he has attracted people who have not voted before. According to Huckabee, his constituents are people who believe that the United States needs to have “a better direction” but that unlike the “change” promised by the Democratic candidates–and to a lesser extent his fellow Republicans–he outlined his core priorities of lower taxes, secure borders, and trade policies that do not cost US jobs. He also contrasted himself with other Republicans by stating that unlike politicians who promise to “listen” to their voters’ opposition to gay marriage and abortion, he will do something about those issues.
He then moved into a portion of his speech that was tailored specifically for voters in Michigan. Like the other Republicans who have spoken in Michigan, Huckabee recognized the situation that Michigan is in and the severe economic challenges facing the state. He argued that Michigan is where it is economically because politicians have made choices that have “left Michigan behind.” Specifically, he talked about how Michigan is losing jobs to Mexico and the Middle East, although he cited no specifics about how or why this is happening. He also appealed to the state’s sense of history, asserting that Michigan has a proud history of automobile manufacturing. Beyond highlighting this historical fact, Huckabee argued that the automobile industry has been critical to the United States. He said that United States “owes Michigan for its freedom” because of its contributions to World War II and that because Michigan helped “save America, it is time for America to save Michigan.”
This sense of nostalgia and a longing for a United States in which ordinary Americans were able to achieve middle class success was a central theme of Huckabee’s speech. He spoke at great length about how many people in the United States are now having to buy the cheapest food, driving to buy the gas that is two cents cheaper, and clipping coupons just to get by. While they are perhaps somewhat simplistic metaphors, they do highlight in an easy-to-understand way that many Americans are struggling. He argued that he understands this and that those in the United States are facing economic difficulties need a president that reminds them of “the guy they work with, not the guy that laid them off.” Much of this discussion–which was surprisingly class-conscious for a Republican–was interspersed with nostalgia for the “traditional” American family, with Huckabee talking about the importance of religion and families raising kids rather than the government.
Huckabee criticized the Republican Party for falling out of step with ordinary Americans. He said that the Party has placed its existence before the future and survival of the country, something that he promised he would not do. Huckabee accused other Republicans of saying that the economy is doing well because they listen to the CEOs rather than talking to the workers who are in many cases not doing well.
Huckabee said that there is wide support for traditional Republican values that are consistent with the “American Dream” that he outlined in his speech. For Huckabee, the so-called “American Dream” is not wanting something “outrageous,” but rather just a better life for their families. To do this, he said that there are several key areas in which there must be action, including lowering taxes (he advocated a so-called “fair tax” that would eliminate the IRS and all taxes and replace them with a national sales tax), protecting US jobs, and strengthening the military. He said that if the United States wants to be a free nation, it needs to be able to feed itself, fuel itself, and fight for itself. To those ends, Huckabee discussed wanting to end foreign dependency on oil and food as well as strengthening the weapons manufacturing system in the US.
Overall, Huckabee’s speech was well-received by the audience, and it was easy to believe that it might resonate well with Michigan. Unlike the recent speeches by McCain and Romney, Huckabee seemed sincere and genuine in his efforts to convince the audience that he truly cares about Michigan. Moreover, he was successfully able to cultivate a rightwing populism that could appeal to those living in the United States who have largely given up on the political process. For those on the left–whether they are “progressives,” Democrats, or whatever–there is much to be learned by Huckabee’s approach. He is clearly addressing issues–such as trade and the economy–that need to be addressed and doing so through a personal lens that resonates with people. It is the job of the left to figure out why Huckabee’s words have appeal and articulate solutions to these issues. Huckabee would be vulnerable on these points–particularly with his “fair tax” plan–but to be vulnerable there will need to be a clearly articulated strategy for appealing to the sort of basic concerns that he is raising.