The EFM Feature

As Nancy has mentioned, the EFM crew rarely gets to sit down in real time — so I’m not sure I can say we have much in the way of formal strategy. But I will say that one of the guiding maxims in my own mind — even if it’s never gone out as a memo or been a discussion item on a staff meeting agenda — is that when “news” comes out regarding Governor Huckabee, we should generally ignore it. Why? First, because there’s little reason to give him more attention than he’s already getting, and second, because he doesn’t deserve the attention. Why not, you ask? Well, it’s simple, if harsh: Because Mike Huckabee will never be president of the United States.

Look, you can like it or not, but there is more to becoming president — and, critically, being president — than doing well in debates, wooing MSM reporters, and impressing roomfuls of conservative Christians. There’s no denying that Governor Huckabee is good at those three things. Regrettably for his supporters, there’s also no denying that he’s done quite poorly with the other things you have to do to become president, such as raising money and building an effective organization. Furthermore, the areas in which Governor Huckabee has stunk up the place are perhaps the best proxies for whether he’d be a good president — they test whether he’s any good as a manager and an executive. After all, he’s trying to convince us that he should be the “CEO” of the “firm” responsible for such vast undertakings as hurricane reconstruction and foreign war prosecution — two areas in which this particular firm has struggled in various ways under the current CEO. And in the end, he’s just not going to be able to make that sale. The reality is that while Governor Huckabee has run the type of campaign he’s run, Senator Clinton and Senator Obama have been raising money hand over fist and putting together big-time campaign organizations. Even with a miracle in Iowa, Governor Huckabee will not be able to match those things overnight — and so, even if he somehow snags the GOP nomination, he’ll be a sacrificial lamb in the general election.

That’s why, like I said, he will never be president of the United States. He may yet prove to be the next U.S. senator from Arkansas — which would be fantastic. He may even become vice president. And he may cause a lot of problems for Governor Romney in Iowa. But none of that will make him president. At best, it will make him the running mate of the first pro-choice Republican presidential nominee since 1976, Rudy Giuliani — because as many commentators have noted, Mayor Giuliani and Governor Romney are the only Republican candidates who have a reasonable scenario for capturing the nomination.
So, that’s a long way of explaining why there hasn’t been a great deal of Huckabee talk here. But, of course, not everybody will agree with those assertions — which is why some very good people have gravitated toward Governor Huckabee. And even if I don’t think his candidacy really deserves our attention, some of his supporters arguments — based on the identity of the supporters, not the supported — do. The one I want to focus on this morning is Joe Carter, proprietor of Evangelical Outpost.

Although I don’t know Joe — I’ve only corresponded with him a few times over e-mail, very briefly — he is a very impressive guy. I’ve admired his blog from afar — if I can use that word considering that we both work in D.C. and live in Northern Virginia — and have seen it praised most highly. The praise strikes me as well deserved. However, his praise of Governor Huckabee — whom he has endorsed, after initially supporting Senator Thompson — seems to be much less so. Specifically, I’ve been amazed by his attempted defense of Governor Huckabee’s fiscal liberalism. Here’s part of the most recent one:

I plan to write more about Huckabee later in the week but I did want to say one thing about him now. Like most social conservatives, I’m also a fiscal conservative. I want a candidate who is solid on both social and fiscal conservatism–which is why I support Mike Huckabee. Many people who criticize Mike Huckabee for his economic positions also call themselves fiscal conservatives. Apparently, one of us is unclear on what the concept means.

Take, for example, this recent criticism in Reason magazine:

Huckabee went on to win the Arkansas governorship and was re-elected for second four-year term. Throughout his ten and a half years in office, Huckabee stressed the idea of holding down the size and cost of government, nonetheless, the state budget increased from $5.7 billion to $10.8 billion during his time in office.

Huckabee did institute property and inventory tax cuts, but during his tenure the sales tax was increased to six percent and withholding was introduced to the state income tax system. Under Huckabee’s administration, state funding for public schools (grades K- 12) increased 105 percent (although enrollment went up only 5 percent), state support for junior colleges increased 323 percent, and grants and loans to college students increased 900 percent.

Does that sound like a fiscal conservative to you? Before you answer let me confess that the preceding paragraphs are from Reason magazine. But they are about Ronald Reagan and the article was written in July 1975.

Mike Huckabee’s record as governor was far more fiscally conservative than the tenure of Ronald Reagan. But what truly matters is the policies he plans to implement as President. Huckabee is the one of only two GOP candidates (Romney was the other) to sign a pledge saying that he would not increase taxes.* He wants to eliminate all personal, federal, corporate federal, gift, estate, capital gains, alternative minimum, Social Security, Medicare, and self-employment taxes. He wants to eliminate the IRS.

Yet because he raised the state sales tax from 4.4% to 6% in order to balance the state’s budget he’s considered a flaming big government liberal.**

I think it’s clear which one of us is unclear on what it means to be “fiscally conservative.” I spell it c-o-n-s-e-r-v-a-t-i-v-e. They spell it l-i-b-e-r-t-a-r-i-a-n. If these libertarian purists had their way in 1980 we’d never have had Ronald Reagan. If they get their way in 2008, we’ll be stuck with Hillary Clinton.

Look, I’m no libertarian purist. And I myself have mused — in writing or just in my head, I’m not sure — that I’m not sure the Ronald Reagan of 1980 could win the Republican nomination of 2008 given how persnickety and petty our coalition has become. But even though Joe and I seem to share a pretty similar set of premises, I must gently suggest that his logic doesn’t hold up.

First, let’s talk history — one of my favorite subjects. When Ronald Reagan assumed the governorship of California, he replaced a liberal Democrat named Pat Brown. Brown had cooked the books during the campaign — so when Reagan entered office, he found a fiscal crisis, not an opportunity for cuts. The state government was virtually out of money, so Reagan had to raise taxes — and he hated every second of it.

Now, while I am an amateur historian of Reagan, I am not a would-be chronicler of Arkansan history. But I know of no similarly dire scenario during Governor Huckabee’s tenure, and I also know he took over from a Republican under whom he served as lieutenant governor. And I also know — via Fox News Sunday — that during his governorship, the average tax burden in Arkansas increased 47 percent. That is quite a number. In his appearance, Governor Huckabee tries to blame it on the Democrat-controlled legislature — which is an interesting line of argument to a Romney supporter. Our guy confronted the most Democratic legislature in the country numerically speaking — and if you think Arkansas Democrats are as radical as the Massachusetts kind, well, I’ve got a bridge to sell you, and Governor Romney still balanced the budget without the kind of massive increases Governor Huckabee oversaw.

Anyway, here is the Fox clip. Judge for yourself:

But there’s an even more important point than that. And that is — as the title of this post suggests — that rhetoric matters. And so, even if you reject everything in my last point, there is still an enormous difference between Governor Huckabee and people like President Reagan and Governor Romney — one that, regrettably for Joe, disproves his point.

Why do I say that? Because the truth is, much of the Fox interview I just posted is totally irrelevant. It’s Governor Huckabee quibbling over the Club for Growth’s numbers. The fact is, while I am not a brain surgeon, I am more fully engaged in the presidential race than 99 percent of the population — and I don’t know what he’s talking about, nor do I care. Neither, I’ll bet you, does practically anyone else. Most of us, quite frankly, have better things to do than to parse the byzantine details of an Arkansan budget debate from years ago.

But you know what? You didn’t have to get out your Secret Decoder Ring and sniff around Californian spending battles to figure out what President Reagan thought about the role and size of government. He made it abundantly clear with his rhetoric. And you know what? That’s really important. It might even be more important than his actual record.
Why is that? Well, we sometimes forget given the closed-lippedness of the current administration, but the president of the United States has the bully pulpit. He can — and should — lead public opinion, not simply follow it. President Reagan did that, and as we’ve said before, our next president needs to follow him. This is overwhelmingly true on the war — as we’ve said — but also on fiscal issues. I would submit to you that the main reason governmental growth is still out of control — even after the Reagan Revolution of 1980, the Republican Revolution of 1994, and President Bush’s tenure — is that when you get right down to it, big government is popular. Think about it. How many people do you know who would give up a government handout to which they were “entitled” if they could, just because it’s not something the government ought to be doing? I am sure the answer is: not enough.

Simply put, we conservatives haven’t closed the sale with the public on fiscal conservatism. (I’m not saying we have on social conservatism, either, but that’s not the subject of this post.) That’s even so among self-identified Republicans. According to the Wall Street Journal, “By a nearly two-to-one margin, Republican voters believe free trade is bad for the U.S. economy.” And that’s why we need the next president to be someone who can lead public opinion on this issue.

I’m sorry, but Governor Huckabee is totally incapable of this task, and not even Chuck Norris can help him. To pick just one example, take this blog post by Governor Huckabee himself:

If we’re going to have a country that works for all its citzens, we will be required to first put people into leadership positions who understand what’s great about America is not our government. It is the people who everyday go to work every day and don’t ask for a whole lot. They really just want to be left alone and earn a decent paycheck so they can provide for their families and improve their own standard of living. When they are promised a pension, they want, and deserve, to have that promise kept.

What they do not deserve is to work 30 years for a company and one day find out there‚Äôs been a leveraged buyout. In situations like these, CEOs have trotted off with millions of dollars in cash and the people who’ve worked all of those years for these companies lose not just a paycheck, but their pensions as well. Our political parties should also reflect the employee’s vision for America, not just the CEO’s.

Look, you can call that rhetoric lots of things. But you can’t — no matter what unrealistic plans the man has for the IRS — call it fiscal conservatism. It’s class warfare, it’s economic illiteracy, and it’s the very same sort of stuff I’ve heard Governor Huckabee say over and over, including at the recent FRC conference.

It’s supposed to be the Democrats who think you can make life miserable for owners and CEOs and still expect other employees to still have jobs, by some miracle. President Reagan knew how to be a friend of the working class without resorting to that kind of thing. Any Republican who echoes such divisive rhetoric is totally unworthy of the Reagan mantle, because he’s abdicated it.

By contrast, Governor Romney really does follow in President Reagan’s footsteps. He’s always talking about making government more efficient, and about all the audits he wants to have run if he becomes president. (See, for instance, Fred Barnes’ recent Weekly Standard cover story.) And he’s shown by his experience in the private sector that he actually knows what he’s talking about. It’s serious, fiscally conservative rhetoric for serious, fiscally out-of-control times.

Joe, you’re going all-out for your guy, and you deserve credit for it. But the truth is, rhetoric matters, and Governor Huckabee’s has been neither serious nor fiscally conservative — and I don’t think even you can explain that away.

NOTE: I have been working on this post since yesterday. For about ten minutes yesterday morning, it was accidentally posted, in its half-finished form. Joe appears to have gotten a look at it then, and he sent in this response. I’m happy to post it, but it doesn’t answer the real point of this post, which hadn’t been written yet — but was going to be written, as you can tell from the title of the post:

In your post you say, ” ..the average tax burden in Arkansas increased 47 percent. That is quite a number.” Indeed, it is quite a number.

It’s also false.

The Club for Growth is being dishonest. If you look at an actual chart of the tax burden in AK ( you’ll see that when Huckabee was elected the tax burden was 10.1%. When he left office the tax burden was 11.2%. That is an increase of 1.1%. In contrast, the tax burden under Romney ( increased by .7% so that still gives you guys bragging rights. ; )
Also you say that “Governor Romney still balanced the budget without the kind of massive increases Governor Huckabee oversaw.” That’s also incorrect. Huckabee’s tax increases were nowhere near as significant as Romney’s. As the CATO Institute notes:

Romney will likely also be eager to push the Message that he was a governor who stood by a no-new-taxes pledge. That’s mostly a myth. His first budget included no general tax Increases but did include a $500 million increase in various fees. He later proposed $140 in business tax hikes through the closing of “loopholes” in the tax code. He announced in May 2004 that he wanted to cut the top income tax rate from 5.3 to 5 percent, but that was hardly an audacious stand. Voters had already passed a plan to do just that before Romney even took office. In his budget for 2006, he proposed $170 million more in business tax hikes, almost completely neutralizing the proposed income tax cut. If you consider the massive costs to taxpayers that his universal health care plan will inflict once he’s left office, Romney’s tenure is clearly not a triumph of small-government activism.

It may be easy to turn a blind eye when CFG tells lies about Huckabee’s record. But what happens when they start shilling for Giuliani by telling the truth about Romney’s record? Once people buy into the idea that Huckabee is a “fiscal liberal” for raising taxes, then, a fortiori, how much more is Romney? I’m a fan of Gov. Romney. But if we start letting the libertarians play this deceptive game then we’ll end up with Rudy in the general election.

Let me just add a couple quick things. First off, as I mentioned above, I don’t think we need to get into the weeds like this to see who’s the real fiscal conservative here. Secondly, I find it odd that Joe favorably cites the Cato Institute’s appraisal of Governor Romney even after he ridicules Cato as “extremist” on his blog today. Finally, while I am not a libertarian, I actually like the Club for Growth — the senatorial campaign of its now-president, Pat Toomey, was the first political race in which I volunteered — and while I often disagree with Cato, I think they’re also pretty good, and I’d love to see some privatized roads. Joe, if you think that’s crazy, move to my home state of Pennsylvania and see what a great job the government does with the roads — you’ll be ready to turn them over to the highest bidder in two days flat.

UPDATE: Jim Guy Tucker, Governor Huckabee’s predecessor, was a Democrat. My apologies for the error.

While I was at it, I checked to see whether Governor Huckabee’s tax hike in 1996 — the year he took office — was due to a crisis like the one Governor Reagan faced. It wasn’t; it was to spend more money on parks. Rhetorically or substantively, this is no Reagan.

About Charles Mitchell

EFM's resident Yankee, Charles Mitchell, works in the non-profit arena in his native Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Charissa, live near the state capital of Harrisburg with their daughter, Adeline, and are members of a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America.

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