Huckabee is Far From Reagan's Heir
By Kimberley Strassel
DES MOINES, Iowa--Stepping out for a press conference here Monday, Mike Huckabee fielded the ultimate question. Just how conservative are you?
"I'm as conservative as anyone could hope to be, or want to be, or needs to be," replied the smiling former Arkansas governor, never missing a beat, and following up with a boilerplate summary of his belief in "lower taxes," the "sanctity of human life" and a "strong military"--before moving ever so swiftly on to the next question.
It was trademark Huckabee: Sounds great, explains little. It's a strategy that has so far served him well, rocketing his campaign in recent weeks to the top ranks of the Republican presidential field. The question is whether he can continue to pull off that trick, now that he's receiving belated media scrutiny. A few days following the candidate on the Iowa campaign trail suggests it could prove tough. If Mr. Huckabee does turn out to be everything Republicans "want" or "need" in a conservative, it will only be because the definition of a conservative has morphed to include tax hiking, protectionism, corporate scolding and an unserious approach to foreign policy.
What aren't in doubt are Mr. Huckabee's social-values credentials. He has an undisputed record on questions of abortion and gay marriage, and he's spent no small portion of his limited advertising money making sure Iowa voters know it. Christian conservatives make up an estimated 40% of the state's GOP vote, and by all accounts he's slowly locking up that vote. That alone accounts for a fair share of his recent rise in the polls.
Mr. Huckabee is the charisma candidate. Like another man from Hope, Ark., the onetime pastor is an extraordinary speaker. He's self-deprecating and funny, has perfect timing, and never struggles for an answer. He has that rare ability to pull out just the right story in response to any situation, and to deliver it in a folksy, Southern way.
At a meeting in Newton, Iowa, when talking about the importance of marriage, Mr. Huckabee notes that in his 34 years with his wife, Janet, she'd never been "wrong." He waits a beat and throws in that he likes "sleeping on the bed, not the couch." People chuckle. When one attendee praises Mr. Huckabee as the "nicest" GOP candidate, Mr. Huckabee quips "I tend to agree. I know these guys, they're bums." More laughter. Along with values, the vast majority of the voters interviewed after these events said their top reason for supporting Mr. Huckabee was that he was the only candidate who struck them as "genuine" and "sincere."
The yawning questions are Mr. Huckabee's stances on those other big GOP-voter concerns--national security and the economy. When he can get away with it, Mr. Huckabee is vague, broadly supporting "school choice," "health-care reform," "lower taxes" and a "strong America." It's when he's pressed for details that things get dodgy.
On the stump, Mr. Huckabee likes to point out that we are in a "world war" against terror, and that his first duty would be to protect Americans. Yet don't expect the Arkansan to stand firm against liberal opinion over America's more controversial strategies. On Monday, he became the only Republican candidate to attend a meeting with retired military officers who have complained about the Bush administration's supposed use of "torture." At an ensuing press conference, Mr. Huckabee quickly jumped on the politically popular bandwagon to condemn "waterboarding," and to further declare his support for closing down Guantanamo Bay because of the "symbol" it "represents" to the "rest of the world."
On other questions of foreign policy, the Arkansan has yet to prove he is ready for international prime time. Asked how he'd handle the Iranian nuclear threat, his stock answer is that America needs to become "energy independent in 10 years," thereby denying Iran oil money. "Iran, I promise you, they wouldn't have enough money to build a reactor just by selling rugs," he explained. (No word on why this didn't stop North Korea.) When asked at a media dinner about the front-page news that the latest National Intelligence Estimate had downgraded Iran's nuclear threat, Mr. Huckabee admitted he didn't even know about the report.
A populist at heart, Mr. Huckabee claims he's "no protectionist," but over and over this week he complained about the U.S. trade deficit with China and vowed, in the best Democratic tradition, to only sign "fair trade" deals. To bring up big companies is to invite a Huckabee lecture on the "greed" of corporate executives who tower over "average employees."
Mr. Huckabee likes to say he cut taxes in Arkansas 94 times, and has collected devotees around his promise for sweeping tax reform via the "fair tax." He promises to abolish the IRS, and along with it all current income, corporate, payroll and other taxes--to be replaced with a 23% national sales, or consumption, tax. He's also promised repeal of the 16th amendment--which established the income tax--to ensure Americans don't get double-taxation.
The chances of actually accomplishing this are about as likely as Christmas three times a year. But the benefit of Mr. Huckabee's dreamy tax proposal is that it has, until now, allowed him to avoid talk of his own checkered tax past in Little Rock. That tenure included sales tax hikes, strong support for Internet taxation, bills raising gas and cigarette taxes, etc. By this week, Mr. Huckabee had been slammed on this tax history so much he was no longer disputing the details. When asked if he didn't have a "mixed" record, Mr. Huckabee shot back: "Most everyone who has ever governed does," before insisting that even the great Reagan had raised taxes while at the helm of California.
Another benefit is that Mr. Huckabee hasn't had to talk about what he'd do with the existing, messy tax system. When I pointed out the unlikelihood of a fair tax, and asked how he'd handle the real-world questions of the Bush tax cuts, the exploding AMT and high corporate taxation, Mr. Huckabee allowed that he'd keep the Bush cuts, said something about the problems Democrats face with the AMT, and launched back into a discussion of the virtues of the fair tax.
Voters are only now beginning to hear some of this, and Mr. Huckabee, with little money or infrastructure in other primary states, is still a long way from the nomination. But if by some chance he keeps up this surge, Republican voters need to understand they are signing up for a whole new brand of "conservatism."
Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.
The Wall Street Journal bashing him is a +10 points in my book.
He has become my 2nd favorite candidate.
But I still don't know what any team saw Thursday night that would have made them comfortable with waiting a round or two for the offensive lineman they wanted. ---Todd McShay
We just converted half our LB to DL. We have a 30m starting DL, it better be pretty friggin good.