COLUMBIA, SC -- "Well ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to introduce you to my future Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Homeland Security, Chuck Norris and Ric Flair!"
So said Mike Huckabee as he began his stump speech yesterday in Florence. While he was kidding (I think), there is a certain logic to Huckabee's habit of bringing the Walker, Texas Ranger star and the veteran pro wrestler on the campaign trail. Such recognizably red-state pop culture icons underscore the populist themes that Huckabee's campaign is built around.
When Huckabee thanked people for coming out in weather that was "abysmal," he quipped that "that's a word I've never used before, but I heard somebody use it one time and I sure hope it fits today, and I believe it does."
Message: See, he's just a regular guy who watches Monday Night RAW and has a tiny vocabulary. People who oppose him are snobs -- or perhaps "Washington insiders," the sort that Huckabee warned were "coming down to South Carolina telling you folks how to vote, telling you how to live, who to be for, who to be against."
It's a nice bit of rhetorical slight of hand, slipping that line about "telling you how to live" in there -- suddenly, campaigning itself, at least if it's for anyone except for Mike Huckabee, is transmogrified into a form of elitist imposition.
Sometimes Huckabee takes his outsider shtick so far that he simply starts lying, as when he told the Florence audience that he was "the one guy running that doesn't have a Washington address." Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney would be surprised to learn that.
David Beasley, one of several South Carolina politician who warmed up the crowd for Huckabee (along with Norris and Flair, of course), put the Huckabee team's populist message most plainly.
"This election is about America. It's about American values, It's about South Carolina values. It's not about Washington politicians, it's not about Washington lobbyists, it's about us versus them," Beasley said.
Oddly enough, Huckabee also presents himself as an agent to unite the "deeply divided" country. Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer and Mike Campbell, Bauer's opponent in the 2006 Republican primary, have both endorsed Huckabee and were both on the trail with him yesterday.
Huckabee made much of this at the Florence event, and promised that "what you see on this stage today -- people coming together -- is exactly what I'm gonna bring to America."
There's a certain discontinuity between the us-versus-them and the bringing-people-together messages.
SPEAKING OF DISCONTINUITY, John McCain's endorsement by conservative stalwart Senator Tom Coburn should be comforting to those on McCain's right -- but at a town hall event in Sumter yesterday, it served instead to put McCain's squishiness in starker relief.
Coburn showed up for this event only because his flight was canceled, but ended up doing a lot of talking during the Q&A. Coburn, who is a doctor, knows a whole lot about health care policy, and there were several questions about health care that McCain asked Coburn to chime in on.
The discussion got remarkably wonky, as Coburn got into the specifics of how the Ryan White Act funds HIV/AIDS treatment, how various reforms could control costs by encouraging preventative care, and why USAID isn't as effective as it should be at fighting disease in the third world.
McCain and Coburn had an especially telling exchange with a young woman who asked why poor people in the third world shouldn't have access to cheap generic drugs that American drug companies have patents on when those companies have their research and development subsidized by the government.
Even as McCain began to explain why breaking pharmaceutical companies' patent protection would be a bad idea, he couldn't help going off on a tangent, calling himself "one of the great enemies of the pharmaceutical companies in Washington."
He admitted that it was hard for him to defend the drug companies. To wit, "I don't know how you can justify not being able to re-import drugs from Canada."
When he passed the question off to Coburn, the good doctor explained to the young woman that her "real question" was "why can't we let people who can produce this from a generic factory in India have what is intellectual property in America?"
He answered with a question and more wonkery: "If you do that, who's going to put the money in for development in the first place? And it's not all government money; it's only about 15 percent government money in terms of total research and development of pharmaceuticals in this nation."
Re-importation of drugs, of course, would also undermine drug companies' profits and retard research and development. It's clear that McCain doesn't share Coburn's skepticism toward going down that road.
Perhaps Coburn's endorsement and his presence on the campaign trails means that he'd have a hand in setting policy in a McCain administration. He'd certainly be a better asset to any president than Chuck Norris or Ric Flair.
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