Reactionary-Progressive? Progressive-Reactionary? Santorum, Huckabee, Cuomo and Economic Populism

05/28/2015 08:09 am ET | Updated May 28, 2016

Democrats invented it. Republicans are adopting it. Win elections, the theory goes, by fiercely adopting the social issues dear to the base of your chosen party, while rejecting its economic orthodoxy.

Slowly now. Andrew Cuomo was the Democrats first "Progr-actionary." He was hard left on social issues like gay marriage, guns, abortion, etc. On economic issues he was hard right, a B-version of Paul Ryan, cutting the estate tax, income taxes on the wealthy, bank taxes, etc. Left on social issues; right on economic issues.

It didn't work for Cuomo. He got pummeled by the Democratic base and leading progressives in the Working Family Party and limped to primary and general election victories over unknown and unfunded opponents. The Democratic primary voter remains committed to economic policies that favor working and poor families and politicians stray to the 1%-ers at their peril.

Now Republicans are trying to figure out if a similar triangulation will work in the presidential race. Both Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are dyed-in-the-wool social reactionaries (or conservatives if you prefer). There is no one to the right of them on gay marriage, abortion etc. But both are loudly abandoning the economic austerity mantra that has been unchallenged dogma in Republican ranks for decades. Republicans are the party of tax cuts for the rich, makers v. takers, entitlement cuts, and less government. It's bad policy, but it's been necessary to curry favor with the corporate/Koch Brothers rich guys who fund Republican campaigns. Not so fast.

Huckabee went first. No cuts in entitlements, Social Security, or Medicare: "I'll never rob seniors of what our government promised them and even forced them to pay for."

Now Santorum adopts the same zeitgeist: First, he called for an increase in the minimum wage, and then slammed the GOP for its tax-cuts-for-the-rich philosophy "a 35-year-old message on the economy" as he pithily phrased it.

Economic populism in the Republican Party? It's the mirror image of what Cuomo tried with Democrats. Huckabee and Santorum are looking for voters who are hard right on social issues, but kinda lefty on economic policy.

As Cuomo found out, it's not easy to pull off. But there are all kinds of reasons why this is going to get a serious look by Republican voters.

Social conservatives are not innately opposed to economic fairness and the grotesque income inequality of recent years is hard to ignore. Evangelicals particularly are open to economic policies that favor the poor for scriptural reasons alone. And most Republican voters are not 1%-ers, they're part of the struggling middle-class that can't find a path out of the Great Recession.

There are politically practical reasons for what Huckabee and Santorum are doing as well. Neither has been receiving the big corporate money that demands economic austerity, so neither is giving much away. Neither has registered on national polls, and "me-too" is not a strategy to surge in Iowa or New Hampshire.

Bill Clinton figured it out 25 years ago. It's the economy, stupid. And policies that benefit the rich, the corporations and the bankers are not necessarily good politics.

It's been easy for Democrats to watch the parade of smart guys, weirdos, experienced pols and wing-nuts that has been the Republican race so far. It's been easy to think that 2016 will mirror 2012 when a moderate Republican was forced to his economic right by a bitter primary battle and had nowhere to go in the general election. Two Republican candidates have learned that lesson. Whether Republican voters have learned the same is the next question.