On countless levels, however, 2008 is aeons away from 1996, let alone 1992. In each of his races, Buchanan was trying to topple a genuine, formidable front-runner: a sitting president, a Senate majority leader. But today it’s evident that, after a year of frantic campaigning, no such creature exists; indeed, Huckabee’s leap into the top tier is itself vivid proof of the point. The GOP too is a very different beast from what it was in the nineties: no longer the majority party in Congress, its foundations crumbling, its leadership dazed, confused, and helpless. When I recently asked a senior party operative if the Republican Establishment could block Huckabee from the nomination, he replied, with a tiny chuckle, “What Republican Establishment?”

More to the point, the conditions on the ground are arguably more conducive to populism now than in Pitchfork Pat’s heyday. In 1996, after all, the economy was in the midst of a historic boom, one that was on the verge of kicking into overdrive. Today, the situation is the reverse: Recession looms, the Dow sags, the housing and credit markets buckle. The economy has elbowed aside Iraq as the central locus of voter anxiety. ~John Heilemann