When other Republicans call Mike Huckabee a populist, what they mean, he says, is that he "actually knows some people that are poor."
The one-time Arkansas governor isn't doing the usual tiptoe dance about running for president in 2016. "There's a new openness" for a run, Huckabee told the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody in an interview published on the last day of Huckabee's long-running radio show. And he outlined that economic populism as a possible theme for his campaign.
In its coverage of the interview, The New York Times noted Huckabee's pride in having predicted the economic collapse during his 2008 bid. It wasn't the sort of prediction that will keep psychics up at night, but one that separated him from a Republican field that was trying to figure out how to deal with the sitting president.
“A lot of things I said that I was sneered at about turned out to be prophetic,” he said about the criticism he took from fellow Republicans over his focus on the working class during the 2008 campaign. “A year later I looked like a genius but nobody ever said, ‘Huckabee was right,'” he said.
But his more remarkable statement on the topic was his critique of the opposition in his own party:
"It scares some Republicans quite frankly. They'll say, 'He's a populist!' What they actually mean by that is, you know, he actually knows some people that are poor."
There's a lot packed into that sentence — the unsubtle framing of his political philosophy, his positioning himself firmly against the Republican establishment, and, of course, the suggestion that his peers don't know any poor people. Huckabee, who's had a show on Fox News since he dropped out of the 2008 race, has clearly honed is already adept ability to relay a message.
Huckabee, unlike any Republican in recent memory, seems to use the arguments of class as a means of reaching out to the communities of color that the party has struggled to entice. "If Republicans want to win," the Times quotes him as saying, "they’ve got to go get a portion of the population they’ve missed the last two election cycles, particularly working-class people and minorities who have not thought there was a message for them."
The Washington Post notes that Huckabee is pleased that the establishment is starting to reach out to him — an establishment that gave him the cold shoulder during his surprisingly successful bid against John McCain. In 2008, he was relatively unknown, but still won eight states, five of them caucuses in which his organized supporters could carry some weight. But the establishment — and money — were on the side of John McCain. Now, especially after Rick Santorum's surprising run in 2012, Huckabee is a package that checks nearly all of the establishment's boxes: executive experience, a strong base with cultural conservatives, high name recognition.
While Huckabee told Brody that he opposed a "purity war" in the party, he'd probably do pretty well in any such battle. He's popular with the Tea Party base, thanks to his often underappreciated conservatism. That popularity is probably also what allows him to play the class card; there's not much distance between "don't bail out banks" and "Christian values necessitate fighting for the poor."
Huckabee is also clearly convinced he can win. "Anybody who would run for any reason other than to win is an idiot," he told Brody, holding a polling memo showing his viability. (Imagine an all-Arkansas general election between Clinton and Huckabee!) But if he continues to actively antagonize the wealthy base of the party, those poll numbers might change.