My Favorite Nut Job

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"But Huckabee is also something else: full-blown nuts, a Christian goofball of the highest order. He believes the Earth may be only 6,000 years old, angrily rejects the evidence that human beings evolved from "primates" and thinks America wouldn't need so much Mexican labor if we allowed every aborted fetus to grow up and enter the workforce. To top it off, Huckabee also left behind a record of ethical missteps in the swamp of Arkansas politics that make White­water seem like a jaywalking ticket.

All of which begs the question: If this religious zealot's rise represents the end of corporate dominance of the Republican Party, is that a good thing? Or is the real thing even worse than the fraud?

On October 30th, fresh off new polls showing him gaining ground all over the country, Huckabee holds an informal round-table luncheon with reporters at a posh restaurant on the Hill called the Monocle. This is the aristocrat political press, the esteemed Washington bureau reps of the big dailies and the newsweeklies, all white and mostly all in suits and silk ties. It's something of a coming-out party for Huckabee, who has put this thing together to give the Beltway big dogs a sniff of his surging newcomer ass.

The luncheon starts out friendly, with reporters tossing Huck softballs about his newfound momentum and his suddenly beefed-up war chest. But once they run out of bullshit horse-race questions, they start in on him about his credentials as a right-winger. One reporter asks how his support of the "fair tax" (an alternative to the flat tax that some conservatives believe is skewed in favor of low-income Americans) qualifies as conservative; two others badger him about raising taxes to build roads in Arkansas; and a third, remarkably, asks Huckabee if it's proper for a conservative to even talk about poverty on the campaign trail.

What the press doesn't understand is that Huckabee has changed the equation of party-specific orthodoxies. A generation of GOP candidates have used the poor as a whipping-post stage prop, complaining about lazy, frantically copulating homeless fiends living in cars, fucking up the property values of Decent Folk. Huck turns that rhetoric around by saying, "We shouldn't allow a child to live under a bridge or in the back seat of a car." It's a brilliant innovation for a candidate like Huckabee, who recognizes that the only thing he has to lose by talking about poverty and high CEO salaries is the support of the big-money wing of his party — something he doesn't have anyway.

Choosing that strategy also allows Huckabee to do what no evangelical since Jimmy Carter has, which is talk about his faith in terms of sympathy for the underprivileged. "You can't just say 'respect life' exclusively in the gestation period," he says. Huckabee also edges openly into class politics, criticizing his own party for harping on the supposed success of the overall economy. "The reality is, there are many families that really are working as hard or harder than they've ever worked in their lives, and they're not seeing that pay off," he says.

For Huckabee, such lines aren't just lip service. As governor of Arkansas, he outraged Republicans with his plan to expand health coverage for children, his embrace of refugees from Katrina and his support for subsidized higher education for the children of illegal immigrants. Worse still, from a Republican standpoint, Huckabee showed little hesitation in raising taxes to pay for such programs — one analysis claims that new taxes initiated during his tenure resulted in a net tax increase of $505 million. Even Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times and one of Huckabee's most ferocious critics, concedes that the candidate's populism isn't an act. "I don't question his sincerity on that," he says of Huckabee, who, like Bill Clinton, grew up in modest circumstances. "He identifies with ordinary people."

Patrician conservatives of the Bush school are alarmed by Huckabee's challenge to traditional Republican thinking. "His record is really one of expanding government and raising taxes," says Pat Toomey, president of the influential Club for Growth. Adds conservative pollster Frank Luntz, "Huckabee has an anti-CEO message that resonates with small-business conservatives. He's the only Republican who regularly talks about Wall Street accountability."

While a few Republicans have played with populist rhetoric in the past — Pat Buchanan comes to mind — it's been ages since conservative voters had any viable alternatives to the soak-the-poor elitism of Newt Gingrich and George Bush. But that may be changing. Huckabee's current surge on the national scene mirrors the rise during the 2006 midterm elections of so-called "Blue Dog" Democrats — candidates like Indiana's Brad Ellsworth and North Carolina's Heath Shuler who helped unseat the Republican majority in Congress with a mix of populist economics and religious dogma. "Huckabee's exactly like the Blue Dogs," says Brantley. "They have the same message."

Coupled with his apparent gift for wooing the star-fucking national media class, Huckabee's seizure of political territory long claimed by the corporate right is what makes him so dangerous. Because for all his political waffling in other areas — Huckabee has flip-flopped on a host of earthly political issues, from taxes to local control of school boards — he leaves absolutely no doubt about his commitment to religious wackohood.

George Bush and John Ashcroft were religious in a scary way, but the rational among us could always take heart that, deep down, the Bush administration was more cynical than messianic. But it doesn't take much exposure to Huckabee to see that this former understudy of a Texas televangelist is deadly serious about the God thing. On the trail, Huckabee is most animated when he's talking about religious issues. In the first Republican debate in New Hampshire, Huckabee, apparently unaware that human beings are primates, responded to a question about evolution by saying, "If anybody wants to believe that they are the descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it."

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.