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The Politics of Uplift

Huckabee's "vertical politics" aims to lift up the country.

By Perry Bacon Jr.
AMES, Iowa -- Barack Obama has spent much of the year talking about "a new kind of politics" -- the politics of hope. But have you have heard of vertical politics?

"People are tired of horizontal politics, left, right, liberal, conservative, Democrats-Republicans, screaming, yelling," former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee told a crowd in Ames, Iowa this week. "Most people in America are not looking for a horizontal candidate but a vertical one."

Despite Huckabee's frequent mentions of the Almighty, "vertical politics" is not looking toward the heavens for the solution to every problem. Vertical politics is the politics of uplift -- and a close rhetorical relative of the politics of hope.

"Ultimately, people don't care whether an issue comes from the left or the right," Huckabee writes on his Web site. "What they want to talk about are ideas that lift America up and make us better. It's what I call vertical politics."

This commitment to inspirational politics isn't the only way the two candidates are alike. Both are rising in recent polls, and Bob Wickers, a top strategist for Huckabee, says that Obama's experience proves that this is a "change election," with voters looking for "authenticity."

Obama and Huckabee are both trying to run campaigns that emphasize their unique personalities, against rivals who are showcasing their experience. Both have deemphasized the importance of policy proposals. Huckabee talks about his faith often, and Obama is perhaps the most outwardly religious leading Democratic candidate since Bill Clinton. Obama has spoken often of his journey toward becoming a Christian in this campaign; one of his ads in South Carolina proclaims him a "Christian family man." (Of course, among early state voters, few attend church as frequently as the white evangelicals Huckabee is wooing in Iowa -- with the notable exception of the African-Americans who are Obama's target audience in South Carolina.)

While Obama says he is practicing a "new kind of politics," his rhetoric and Huckabee's on bringing people together is not all that new. President Bush pledged to unite the country when he ran, and John McCain is offering a similar argument, as well.

Huckabee's populism, however, is unusual in this year's GOP field, and sets him apart from Obama's more conciliatory approach. "People at the lowest end of the economic scale, primarily because of increased energy prices, because of the high cost of health care, the cost of education, those things are rising at higher levels than their salaries," Huckabee told reporters on a bus tour of Iowa. "That's why I am really concerned some people in our party, they just don't get it, because their personal economy hasn't been affected, their net worth is on a piece of paper and maybe it's gone down....It doesn't change where they go on vacation. It doesn't change what car they drive."

And Huckabee's populism is tied to a more traditional GOP attack on elites, whereas the Harvard Laws School-educated Obama's candidacy depends in part on the favor of those elites. In speeches, Huckabee repeatedly called out "Ivy League," "Yale" and "Harvard" as a way of contrasting previous candidates -- and his current rivals, such as former Mass. governor Mitt Romney -- with himself.

"For my family, summer was never a verb," Huckabee said of his childhood. "We never summered anywhere."

By Web Politics Editor  |  December 21, 2007; 6:12 PM ET
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