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Mike Huckabee's Legacy

By Rod Dreher

Huckenfreude! That's blogger Ross Douthat's splendid word - taken from schadenfreude, the German term for taking pleasure in the misfortune of others - to describe glee over the miseries Mike Huckabee's candidacy is inflicting on the GOP establishment.

The campaign's purest Huckenfreudian moment so far came on Sunday's Meet the Press, when Mitt Romney protested Mr. Huckabee's calling President Bush's foreign policy "arrogant."

"That's an insult to the president, and Mike Huckabee should apologize to the president," Mr. Romney whined.

Or what? He's going to take away the Huck's GOP pledge pin? Mr. Romney's unctuous response brought to mind Doug Neidermeyer, the Animal House brown-noser vexed by the Delta House rabble.

The pathetic Romney plaint is the mournful cry of a Republican establishment in meltdown. Last week, National Review Online blogger Lisa Schiffren, a Giuliani backer, laid into Mr. Huckabee with a screed pithily summarized by Mr. Douthat as, "Go back to Dogpatch, you stupid hillbilly."

Alas for the GOP and for the old guard religious-right leadership, the view from Dogpatch these days is looking up for the populist Huckabee. Could it be that cultural and religious conservatives are fed up with being treated like useful idiots by the Republican establishment?

Karl Rove helped re-elect Mr. Bush in 2004 by pushing statewide ballot initiatives to protect traditional marriage. But when the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution came up before the Senate, the GOP backed away from it, and President Bush gave it only desultory support. The amendment died with barely a fight from the Beltway right.

Then there was the secret memo sent by Michael Scanlon, associate of crooked GOP fixer Jack Abramoff, that mocked Christian conservatives as "wackos" who could be easily manipulated to serve business interests. And David Kuo, the conservative evangelical former White House staffer, wrote last year that when Christian leaders would stop by, kissing up would ensue, but then they "were dismissed behind their backs and described as 'ridiculous,' 'out of control' and just plain 'goofy.' "

Is there any wonder that a growing number of evangelicals are tired of playing the establishment's game, no matter what their traditional leaders say? Should Mr. Huckabee win the GOP nomination, he won't owe the religious right's old guard a thing. Good.

But this populist revolt is not just about religion. Mr. Huckabee calls himself the candidate of Main Street, taking on a party that has become "a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street." He's a throwback to a kind of conservatism that had a home in the Democratic Party before it embraced the counterculture - and created Reagan Democrats.

In a time of mounting economic anxiety, Mr. Huckabee could do worse than to position himself as an outsider critic of a party that just last week blocked an exceedingly modest tax increase on big oil companies to fund research into alternative fuels. His about-face on immigration indicates that he is either an opportunist, or that he is beginning to understand that the conservative grassroots is tired of globalizing Washington elites favoring business interests over their countrymen's common good.

And Mr. Huckabee is hitting the demographic sweet spot in a changing conservative coalition. A comprehensive 2005 survey by the non-partisan Pew Center found most Americans who identify with the GOP favor policies that are socially conservative but economically progressive. A significant number of conservative Democrats identify with this basic outlook - and conceivably would be open to voting for him over Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, two social arch-liberals.

Mr. Huckabee probably isn't the best advocate for populist conservatism at the moment. On policy, he too often seems to be winging it. Because of his relative unpreparedness, he might not make it to the general election. But his legacy will define conservative politics for the next political era.

The marvelous Ron Paul excepted, most of the GOP candidates are about the end of something. Mike Huckabee is about the beginning of the next big thing in Republican politics. As a disaffected conservative who does not yet know for whom he's going to vote, it's a pleasure to watch the plain-talking outsider's rise.

If you ask me, the howls and alarm bells sounded by GOP mandarins panicking over the Huckabeean revolt make a rousing soundtrack for a toga party in Dogpatch.

Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. His e-mail address is rdreher@dallasnews.com.

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