As the hopeless but energetic presidential campaign of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) builds momentum in name recognition, fundraising and cross-ideology appeal, media conservatives are beginning to attack Paul in earnest. Republican consultant David Hill condemns the candidate's "increasingly leftish" positions. Syndicated columnist Mona Charen calls Paul "too cozy with kooks and conspiracy theorists." Film critic and talk radio host Michael Medved looks over Paul's supporters and finds "an imposing collection of neo-Nazis, white Supremacists, Holocaust deniers, 9/11 'truthers' and other paranoid and discredited conspiracists."
For the most part, these allegations strike me as overblown and unfair. But, for argument's sake, let's say they're not. Let's even say that Paul has the passionate support of the Legion of Doom, that his campaign lunchroom looks like the "Star Wars" cantina, and that many of his top advisors actually have hooves.
While many are marveling at Paul's striking success at breaking out of the tinfoil-hat ghetto, Huckabee's story is even more remarkable. The former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister is polling in second place in Iowa and could conceivably win there. He's still a long shot to take the nomination and a pipe dream to take the presidency, but Huckabee matters in a way that Paul still doesn't. One small indicator of Huckabee's relevance: His opponents in the presidential race are attacking him while the field is ignoring Paul like an eccentric who sits too close to you on the bus.
So what's so scary about Huckabee? Personally, nothing. By all accounts, he's a charming, decent, friendly, pious man.
What's troubling about The Man From Hope 2.0 is what he represents. Huckabee represents compassionate conservatism on steroids. A devout social conservative on issues such as abortion, school prayer, homosexuality and evolution, Huckabee is a populist on economics, a fad-follower on the environment and an all-around do-gooder who believes that the biblical obligation to do "good works" extends to using government -- and your tax dollars -- to bring us closer to the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
For example, Huckabee has indicated he would support a nationwide federal ban on public smoking. Why? Because he's on a health kick, thinks smoking is bad and believes the government should do the right thing.
And therein lies the chief difference between Paul and Huckabee. One is a culturally conservative libertarian. The other is a right-wing progressive.
Whatever the faults of the man and his friends may or may not be, Paul's dogma generally renders them irrelevant. He is a true ideologue in that his personal preferences are secondary to his philosophical principles. When asked what his position is, he generally responds that his position can be deduced from the text of the Constitution. Of course, that's not as dispositive as he thinks it is. But you get the point.
As for Huckabee -- as with most politicians, alas -- his personal preferences matter enormously because ultimately they're the only thing that can be relied on to constrain him.
In this respect, Huckabee's philosophy is conventionally liberal, or progressive. What he wants to do with government certainly differs in important respects from what Hillary Clinton would do, but the limits he would place on governmental do-goodery are primarily tactical or practical, not philosophical or constitutional. This isn't to say he -- or Hillary -- is a would-be tyrant, but simply to note that the progressive notion of the state as a loving, caring parent is becoming a bipartisan affair.
Indeed, Huckabee represents the latest attempt to make conservatism more popular by jettisoning the unpopular bits. Contrary to the conventional belief that Republicans need to drop their opposition to abortion, gay marriage and the like in order to be popular, Huckabee understands that the unpopular stuff is the economic libertarianism: free trade and smaller government. That's why we're seeing a rise in economic populism on the right coupled with a culturally conservative populism. Huckabee is the bastard child of Lou Dobbs and Pat Robertson.
Historically, the conservative movement benefited from the tension between libertarianism and cultural traditionalism. This tension -- and the effort to reconcile it under the name "fusionism" -- has been mischaracterized as a battle between right-wing factions when it is a conflict that runs through the heart of individual conservatives. We all have little Mike Huckabees and Ron Pauls sitting on our shoulders. Neither is always right, but both should be listened to.
I would not vote for Paul mostly because I think his foreign policy would be disastrous (and because he'd lose in a rout not seen since Bambi versus Godzilla). But there's something weird going on when Paul, the small-government constitutionalist, is considered the extremist in the Republican Party while Huckabee, the statist, is the lovable underdog. It's even weirder because it's probably true: Huckabee is much closer to the mainstream. And that's what scares me about Huckabee and the mainstream alike.