Edwards Today, Huckabee Tomorrow?

Last week, contemplating the possibility of a Huckabee defeat, Rod Dreher wrote:

For us Huckaboosters, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for our man to drop out, and spend the next four years doing some hard thinking and networking, getting ready for 2012.

This notion inspires Larison to describe the Huck as “tomorrow’s John Edwards.” He goes on:

What I mean is that a failed Huckabee run would put him in much the same position that Edwards’ failed ‘04 campaign put him these last several years (and Edwards had the advantage, so to speak, of being the VP nominee, which I doubt Huckabee will receive given the intense hostility to him wthin the party leadership.) Huckabee may spend the next several years doing hard thinking and networking if he drops out, but I doubt he will be preparing for another presidential run. If the example of John Edwards tells us something, it is that repeat candidates for the nomination tend to perform less well in the second attempt (Reagan being a big exception that leaps to mind). Despite his policy and philanthropy work in the last four years, and despite his intensive cultivation of supporters in the netroots and in Iowa, John Edwards has become a has-been and also-ran who does not yet realise that he is either one. Given the incandescent loathing of Huckabee in elite conservative circles and among big-money donors, I don’t know exactly what kind of networking he could build that would make him more successful in four years.

I think it all depends on what sort of impact Huckabee wants to make. Yes, one lesson of the Edwards re-run is that second-time candidates have a difficult time recapturing the magic of their first go-round. Another lesson, though, is that a savvy, charismatic politician can have a big impact on his party’s intellectual landscape even when his campaign for the Presidency ends up sputtering. By identifying himself with the smartest minds on the ideological left and pushing their ideas every chance he got, John Edwards succeeded in driving his rivals for the Democratic nomination to the left as well, on issues ranging from health care to global warming. Similarly, one can imagine Mike Huckabee taking his as-yet-notional critique of the conservative establishment and spending the next few years trying to put some meat on it – by, say, hanging out with everyone from Ramesh Ponnuru to Caleb Stegall – in the hopes of shifting the GOP conversation in his direction come 2012.

Admittedly, there are a host of difficulties with this more positive Huckabee-as-Edwards vision. For one thing, Edwards’ left-populism had pre-existing institutional support: When he moved leftward after ’04, he found a variety of organizations waiting for him – unions, think tanks, activist groups and so forth. Nothing like this exists on the right, where the establishment that doesn’t heart Huckabee is the only establishment there is. There are a variety of critiques of current movement orthodoxy emerging in the wake of the Bush years, associated with a variety of heterodox voices, from David Frum to Rod Dreher to Reihan and myself. What there isn’t is anything approaching an institutional base from which to launch a reform-conservative campaign. If he wanted to play Edwards, Huckabee would essentially be trying to build one from the ground up, and if there’s anything we know about Huck after a year of watching him campaign, it’s that he prefers chasing the TV cameras to organization-building or heavy-duty intellectual spadework. Maybe he'll surprise me, but I think it’s more likely that he’ll end up as a talk-show host or a motivational speaker than that he’ll spend the next four years trying to reshape the ideological landscape of the American Right.