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Mike Huckabee in Iowa

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, tours the Clow Valve plant with general manager Mark Willett on May 6 in Oskaloosa, Iowa. PHOTO BY ASSOCIATED PRESS

Charlie Neibergall

Mike Huckabee is a predictably extreme conservative on a host of social issues. But on a host of economic issues, he is something of a populist.

That combination makes him a much more serious contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination than much of the media — and even some of his fellow candidates in the race he entered May 5 — might imagine. This does not mean that the former governor of Arkansas and failed 2008 Republican presidential prospect will be the 2016 nominee of his party. In all likelihood, he’ll fail again. But he might take Scott Walker down with him.

How’s that?

The great balancing act of the Republican Party in recent decades has been to get socially conservative people who are not all that wealthy to abandon their economic self-interest and vote for candidates who openly advocate for trade policies that eliminate jobs, oppose efforts to address wage stagnation, and have no real problem with an ever-expanding pattern of income inequality.

Working-class and middle-income Americans who passionately oppose abortion rights and marriage equality but who might want to keep their jobs and Social Security usually find themselves in a bind. As Republicans, they can choose from plenty of candidates who promise to prevent loving couples from getting married. But those same candidates are likely to put a lot of jobs and all of Social Security at risk.

There’s just not a lot of opportunity for working-class evangelicals to vote their values and to vote their wallets at the same time.

Except, perhaps, with Huckabee.

No, Huckabee is not some Republican Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Bernie Sanders. But within the Republican Party as it has been reconstructed by House Ways and Means Committee Chair Paul Ryan and his minions — as a battering ram for austerity policies and the unapologetic redistribution of wealth upward — Huckabee is an outlier.

The former governor at least tries to distance himself from the overt politics of plutocracy.

Consider Huckabee’s response several weeks ago to the various Ryan-lite proposals to mess with Social Security and Medicare.

Huckabee said his answer to the schemes was “not just no, it’s you-know-what no.”

“I don’t know why Republicans want to insult Americans by pretending they don’t understand what their Social Security program and Medicare program is,” he said, ripping into proposals to raise the retirement age and otherwise undermine benefits.

While leading GOP contenders such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Walker have indicated an interest in mangling so-called “entitlement programs” as part of a broader austerity agenda, Huckabee says, “That’s not a reform.” Rather, he says, that’s a government scheme “that took money from its people under one pretense and then took it away at the time they started wanting to actually get what they have paid for all these years.”

Or consider Huckabee on trade policy.

Republican leaders in Congress want to fast-track President Obama’s sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, even though critics decry it as “NAFTA on steroids.” Candidates such as Bush and Walker have histories of repeating Wall Street talking points when it comes to trade policy. But Huckabee says of the TPP: “If it’s not fair trade, it’s not free trade.” And he gripes that trade policies seem to be written in the interest of multinational corporations as opposed to working Americans, arguing, “We have a lot of globalists and frankly corporatists instead of having nationalists who put forward the best interests of the United States and working families.”

Huckabee even has an occasional kind word for organized labor. He’s no friend to public-sector unions, but he admits that private-sector unions “have actually provided some decent check and balance to jobs and businesses.”

In 2008, when he sought the Republican nomination with the support of the Machinist and Painters unions, Huckabee told a GOP forum: “The real fact is, unions are going to take a more prominent role in the future for one simple reason: A lot of American workers are finding that their wages continue to get strapped lower and lower while CEO salaries are higher and higher. And the reality is that when you have the average CEO salary 500 times the average worker, and you have the hedge fund manager making 2,200 times that of the average worker, you’re going to create a level of discontent that’s going to create a huge appetite for unions. So unions are the natural result of workers finally saying, ‘Look, I can’t go from a $70,000-a-year job to a $15,000-a-year job and feed my family of four.’ That’s when unions are going to come back in roaring form.”

That’s a far cry from the aggressive union-bashing of many of the Republican contenders, particularly Walker, who recently signed an anti-labor right-to-work law, regularly rips on union leaders, and responded to a February question about global terror by claiming: “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the globe.”

Walker’s clownish labor bashing has earned criticism even from conservatives. And it undoubtedly made socially conservative Republicans who are union members uncomfortable. But they have not had much in the way of an alternative, until now.

That’s what makes Huckabee’s decision to join the 2016 race bad news for the Wisconsinite.

Serious social conservatives aren’t going to get excited by Bush. But Walker has made a big play for evangelical votes — especially in Iowa.

The trouble for Walker is that Huckabee, who won Iowa in 2008, has maintained close ties to many of the evangelicals Walker needs. That’s what makes Huckabee a threat to the Wisconsinite and to other contenders who are more in touch with hedge-fund managers than with hog farmers.

Mike Huckabee may not be a full-on economic populist. But he is enough of one to stand out from the “Wall Street can do no wrong” Republicans like Scott Walker. And if the man from Arkansas offers working-class evangelicals in states such as Iowa the right combination of social conservatism and support for Social Security and fair trade, he will prove that Republicans are sick of austerity.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times