Late last month, as former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee announced his candidacy for president, he correctly observed that many Republicans are looking for an “authentic” conservative in the race. Clearly conservatives have not found the ideal candidate who meets all their criteria — resolute on national defense, stalwart on low taxes, vigilant on limiting the size of government, and unreservedly and consistently supportive of traditional marriage and the pro-life agenda. At first blush Governor Huckabee, a former Baptist minister and president of the Southern Baptist convention with a folksy delivery and executive experience, seems well positioned to appeal to conservatives.
Most Americans know him for his remarkable effort in losing 110 pounds and his success as a marathon runner. Diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2003, he realized he needed to lose some weight. Huckabee relates that his doctor told him that “if I didn’t change my health habits, I was living in the last decade of my life.” Over the next several years he completed four marathons and garnered a number of running awards. In nonpolitical terms he advises people that “it’s never too late to take control of your health,” but he thinks there is a political analogy as well, remarking: “Whether it’s weight loss, marathon training or running a political race, I know it all begins with a firm commitment and the courage to take that first step. You need to run your race at your own pace. You have to pace yourself and set up a game plan that helps you get to the finish line.”
Governor Huckabee is perhaps best situated to appeal to conservatives on family and social issues. He says without hesitation: “On the social issues, my political viewpoint is based on my core values and spiritual convictions. While I am deeply pro-life, I also believe that our commitment to life doesn’t stop at birth, but instead to do everything possible to help all children have what they need to realize their full potential.” Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute of Marriage and Public Policy, counts herself as a “fan” of the governor’s efforts to reduce “family fragmentation” and out of wedlock births and unnecessary divorce. He signed bills outlawing same sex marriage, requiring parental consent for abortion, and mandating notification by abortion providers to prospective parents that the unborn baby may feel pain. He also signed one of three state covenant-marriage laws, allowing couples to elect to marry under conditions that permit divorce only after appropriate counseling and when there has been a “total and complete” breach of the relationship.
Although lacking military or foreign-policy experience, he identifies with clarity the threats posed by Islamic fundamentalism. At the National Review Institute Summit in January he firmly declared that we are a “country at war” and that the enemies of the United States “celebrate death.” He said bluntly, “If the war is lost, civilization is lost.” As to Iraq in particular, he candidly acknowledges he does not yet have the expertise to opine on specific strategies. Although opposing calls for immediate withdrawal of troops, he has spoken sympathetically of the strain on local National Guard members and military reservists who bear the brunt of extended duty tours.
It is on taxes and restraining the size of government that he has encountered the most criticism. He says, “I’m proud of my record as a fiscal conservative.” Initially he did win praise from conservatives for championing a $70 million (Huckabee contends the figure is $90 million) tax cut in Arkansas in 1997. Signing the first broad-based tax cut in state history, his package increased the standard deduction, indexed tax brackets for inflation and eliminated capital gains tax on home sales. In 1999 he passed the Property Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, limiting the increase in property taxes to 10 percent a year for individuals. In 2001 he was named “Friend of a Taxpayer” by American for Tax Reform (ATR) for among other things cutting spending by $143 million for FY 2001 and $160 million for the following year and for creating a “voluntary” tax for those who wanted to pay more in lieu of any mandated tax increase.
However, with the passage of time, Governor Huckabee’s star dimmed considerably with economic conservatives. By the end of his second term he had raised sales taxes 37 percent, fuel taxes 16 percent, and cigarettes taxes 103 percent, leading to a jump in total tax revenues from $3.9 billion to $6.8 billion. The Cato Institute gave him a failing grade of “F” on its fiscal report card for 2006 and an only marginally better but still embarrassing “D” for his entire term. Both as a governor and now as a presidential candidate Huckabee has declined to sign a “no tax” pledge. Recalling that Huckabee has said that he would only raise taxes if his arm were twisted, Grover Norquist of ATR responded: “He has a history of allowing his arm to be twisted and twisting other’s arms.”
He was not the poster child for smaller government. During his tenure, the number of state government workers in Arkansas increased over 20 percent. Under Governor Huckabee’s watch, state spending increased a whopping 65.3 percent from 1996 to 2004, three times the rate of inflation, and the state’s general obligation debt shot up by almost $1 billion. As Grover Norquist quipped, “We like chubby governors and skinny budgets. Not the other way around.” The massive increase in government spending is due in part to the number of new health programs and expansion of existing ones, including ARKids First, a state program to provide health coverage for 70,000 Arkansas children. Spending on ARKids alone increased 69 percent over a five-year period. Huckabee says it is worth it. He proudly states: “ARKids First is without a doubt, the program I am most proud of. This provides health insurance to tens of thousands of children who didn’t have access to health care before. Instead of a total government approach, this requires deductibles and copays and therefore some personal responsibility. Children can’t learn if they are sitting in class with a toothache, fever, or they can’t see the chalkboard.”
He has not skimped on health initiatives. His programs have included early intervention for diabetes prevention aimed at reducing the huge impact of diabetes on state Medicaid costs, substitution of exercise breaks in lieu of smoking breaks for state workers, state-funded smoking cessation programs, and most controversially, weighing and issuing health report cards for school children. As to the required weigh-ins, Huckabee explains: “I felt it was vital to pass a law to make it mandatory that every student have their Body Mass Index measured.” He believes that, because of this program, “Arkansas is the only state in the nation which showed a drop in the childhood obesity rate.”
While legions of health advocates praised these programs, conservatives not surprisingly are skeptical of these measures. Calling these types of programs the worst of the “parodies of liberal nannyism,” Charles Murray bluntly observes: “They are bad in principle, they’re a waste of money, they are of the same muddle-headed mindset as the Compassionate Conservatism of the Bush administration. That a person who advocates them might be taken seriously as a Republican candidate for the presidency just 20 years after Reagan left office is deeply depressing.”
The Club for Growth has voiced similar skepticism that, looking at his record over ten years, economic conservatives should “wonder if a President Huckabee would espouse the relatively pro-growth policies of Governor Huckabee circa 1997 or the anti-growth policies of Governor Huckabee circa 2004.” Obviously concerned about his standing with economic conservatives, Huckabee shot back at Club for Growth touting his original tax package, claiming to have cut taxes nearly one hundred times, and declaring he was in favor of returning Arkansas’s budget surplus to tax payers. Club for Growth returned fire, quoting the Arkansas Times: “By claiming to have cut taxes 94 times, Huckabee fixed a standard for what is a tax cut: every little exemption, credit, deduction or tax break of any kind. By that standard every governor [over] the past 60 years cut taxes numerous times.” Club for Growth also chastised Huckabee for advocating return of the surplus when “he had ample opportunity in the summer of 2006 to do just that as governor and declined to take the necessary steps of calling the Legislature into session.” It would seem conservatives searching for Mr. Right to rebuild the coalition of social and economic conservatives may need to keep looking.
– Jennifer Rubin is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.