In some quarters, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee appears to be the flavor-of-the-month Republican candidate for president. Given his folksy charm, social conservative credentials, and embrace by the mainstream media, it is not surprising that some are increasingly enamored with him. But this flirtation does a great disservice to the conservative movement if it overlooks Huckabee’s stunning record of big-government liberalism.
During Huckabee’s tenure as governor, the average Arkansan’s tax burden increased 47 percent, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A dyed-in-blue tax hiker, Huckabee supported raising sales taxes, gas taxes, grocery taxes, even nursing home bed taxes. He virulently opposed a congressional moratorium on taxing Internet access, and sat on the sidelines while his Democratic legislature pushed the largest tax hike in Arkansas history into law. What’s more, on his watch, and frequently at his behest, state spending increased by 50 percent, more than double the rate of inflation, and the number of state government workers rose by 20 percent. Yes, as a presidential candidate, Huckabee has signed on as a supporter of the Fair Tax and pledged against raising taxes, but when a candidate’s long and clear record flies in the face of his election-year symbolism, you can chalk it up to politics every time.
Of course, there is little actual chance of Huckabee winning the presidency — at least not in 2008. Notwithstanding his improved polling in Iowa, Huckabee isn’t really running for president — not with a near empty campaign treasury. Rather, the second iteration of the Man from Hope is trying to parlay his social conservative credentials and aw-shucks congeniality into the vice-presidential nomination next year. Before conservatives jump on that train, however, they should consider the likelihood that the presence of such a big government backer on the ticket would hurt the party’s prospects more than it helps.
In 2006, Republicans suffered a severe lashing at the polls in retaliation for years of out-of-control spending and government expansion. In the final days before last year’s elections, Citizens Club for Growth commissioned a poll among voters in the 15 most competitive congressional districts across the country. The results showed a remarkable and painful erosion of the Republicans’ fiscal branding among these key swing voters.
For example, we asked voters whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “The Republicans used to be the party of economic growth, fiscal discipline, and limited government, but in recent years, too many Republicans in Washington have become just like the big spenders that they used to oppose.” Sixty-six percent of voters in these key districts agreed with the statement, including 72 percent of Independents.
In order to earn back the public’s trust on economic issues, not to mention offer a compelling contrast with a Hillary Clinton-led Democratic ticket, Republicans must present a consistent message. A big-government liberal like Mike Huckabee, who takes pleasure in attacking the Republican party as the “party of Wall Street,” will only reinforce the image of Republicans as “the big spenders that they used to oppose.” A Huckabee nomination, even as vice president, will make it impossible for the Republican party to reclaim its brand of fiscal conservatism and limited government, without which it cannot be a majority party again.
Huckabee makes no secret of his desire to turn the GOP leftward, calling himself a “different kind of Republican,” adopting protectionist positions, and peppering his campaign speeches with the kind of class warfare rhetoric one expects to hear from John Edwards. No doubt, this is the reason that the liberal media is so smitten with him.
Instead of talking about curtailing government spending, Huckabee refuses to endorse President Bush’s veto of a vastly expanded S-CHIP. He is an unabashed fan of No Child Left Behind and an opponent of private school choice. Huckabee is also quickly becoming the labor unions’ favorite Republican, recently gaining a union endorsement along with Hillary Clinton.
In frontrunners Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and Mitt Romney, the GOP is well on its way to nominating a candidate for president with a strong fiscal record. Each of them would provide a great opportunity for the GOP to reestablish its vitally important brand as the party of pro-growth tax policy and smaller and more affordable government. But no Republican presidential candidate can effectively claim that mantle with Mike Huckabee standing by his side.
Beyond those currently running for president, the eventual nominee has any number of strong across-the-board conservative prospects for vice president to choose from within the GOP ranks. Surely, he can do so without assuming the tax-and-spend baggage Mike Huckabee would bring.
In 2006, Republicans paid a steep price for big-government conservatism’s record-setting domestic spending spree. That is a lesson we should take to heart as we consider the choices facing us in 2008.
– Pat Toomey is the president and CEO of the Club for Growth.