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Mike Huckabee doesn't forget.
He doesn't forget the sneers of the "Wall Street bunch," who considered the former Arkansas governor with populist economic views an ignorant Baptist preacher unfit to become president in 2008. He doesn't forget the deal he insists that fellow Southerner Fred Thompson struck with John McCain to remain in the 2008 race through the South Carolina primary to deny him victory and momentum there after Huckabee had won the Iowa caucuses. The two other men have both denied making such a pact, but Huckabee lost the primary and McCain became the Republican nominee.
Now that he's running again, he doesn't forget the skepticism of pundits who've suggested his candidacy is motivated by money rather than a sincere attempt to win the presidency. "What a stupid thing to say," he remarked in an interview at The Home Plate Diner in Des Moines, Iowa. "I had a TV show. I had a book deal. I was making more speeches than I could keep up with. That's what I walked away from to do this."
Huckabee, 60, still advocates the fair tax — a 23 percent national sales levy that he argues should replace the current income and payroll tax system. A tax advisory commission appointed by President George W. Bush criticized the idea on grounds that it would hurt lower-income Americans who spend a higher proportion of their income than the affluent do. Huckabee called the commission's analysis flawed.
He also carries a chip on his shoulder for the "Wall Street bunch." During the 2007 CNBC economic debate, he recalls, he cautioned that the economy wasn't rewarding working-class voters even as rival candidates praised it.
"I was just pilloried for that by The Wall Street Journal and by others who thought that I was a total ignoramus, " he said. "I was getting savaged for it by the elitists."
The financial crash a year later, he added, vindicated his judgment and gave the elitists a taste of the hardship that had already been felt in what he calls "Bubbaville." With a touch of anger, he echoes the regret recently expressed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that no Wall Street executives went to jail for misdeeds that contributed to the crisis.
"Absolutely they should have," he said. "These were the smartest people in the room. These were the people that were supposed to be the geniuses. These were all Ivy Leaguers, and they knew darn well what they were doing — shuffling paper around and getting paid ridiculous sums of money.
"They didn't produce things. They didn't make or manufacture. They weren't making an iPhone. They were betting on what an iPhone might be worth in a few years, and selling it off. It was a casino. And I got in trouble for saying that very thing eight years ago. I'd like to say, 'I was right.'"
Huckabee grew impassioned as he spoke in the name of the middle- and working-class voters who suffered in the crash and Great Recession.
"If the same kind of shell game had been practiced on the street, do you think the cops in the bunco division wouldn't have gone down and busted 'em?" he said. "Does anybody ever accept responsibility for the fact that 60,000 manufacturing plants have closed in this country, 5 million manufacturing jobs have disappeared since the year 2000? Every day I meet people ... who are today working two and three part-time jobs, and make less money than they used to make when they had one full-time job that paid 'em benefits and had a pension."
And he was blunt-spoken about why he believes that government hasn't gotten tough with those responsible.
"Money, politics — that's what I say," he explained. "Washington is like a strip club. You got people tossing dollars, and people doing the dance. But while the Washington-Wall Street strip club's going on, you got people out there in the middle of the country and all over America who are losing their homes, losing their jobs and wondering: 'How the heck doesn't somebody stand up and do something about it?'"
Huckabee's ability to do something about it himself isn't clear. He currently ranks eighth, with just 2.7 percent support, in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls. He's only slightly stronger in his 2008 base of Iowa — seventh place with 4.3 percent. In South Carolina he draws 3 percent, which ties him with Ohio Gov. John Kasich for eighth place. He has drawn far more attention for his social views — including his defense of a local Kentucky official resisting court rulings on same-sex marriage — than for the fair tax.
Yet he insists he still has time. He ran in 2008, after all, and hasn't forgotten.
"I know looking back that everybody who is leading in the race at this point in time never even made it to the top slots when it came time to vote," Huckabee said. "If I'd believed that in 2008, I would have gone ahead and acquiesced to President Giuliani, President Thompson or President Romney. I beat all three of 'em."