Columns » John Brummett

A cornflake for the GOP

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Lacking money, Mike Huckabee did it mostly with personal political skill, apparently conveyed through the water supply in Hope in the 1940s and '50s.

He simply had to take second place Saturday in the straw poll in Ames, Iowa. Anything less would not have sustained his sputtering and financially strapped presidential race.

He made it.

The effect, for the moment, is that he is a more serious candidate for the Republican presidential nomination than John McCain.

Mitt Romney, a presidential candidate sent over by central casting, probably spent as much on this straw poll as Huckabee has raised for his campaign altogether. Huckabee's pulling a robust 18 percent was a far more substantial and meaningful accomplishment than Romney's buying an anemic 32 percent.

Romney ran television spots touting the straw vote. The only television spots mentioning Huckabee lately in Iowa were attacks on him by those anti-government extremists calling themselves the Club for Growth.

That outfit despises Huckabee because, his usual right-wing rhetoric aside, he usually governed Arkansas as a pragmatic centrist who believed in government and understood the need to finance it.

Huckabee got a decisive boost from about 500 Iowans bused in by the cultish national organization advocating a so-called fair tax. That would be a national consumption tax to replace the income tax. It's a gimmick that Huckabee has embraced tactically to garner an economically conservative, Steve Forbesian niche.

But Huckabee was in the game at all only because he easily is the best communicator in the talent-challenged Republican field, the most gifted and polished.

He stepped up Saturday afternoon and preached his way past Sam Brownback, from Iowa-neighboring Kansas and better-organized for the straw vote. The sermon was vintage Huckabee, engrossing as you heard it, but reduced pretty much to nonsense after you'd had a little time to think about it.

Huckabee extolled America's devotion to the sanctity of life as exhibited by the earnest search to dig out and save those miners in Utah. His point was that this proves we shouldn't have abortion.

In America we don't leave trapped workers to rot. Somehow that supposedly goes to show that women shouldn't have the right to make choices about their bodies.

Then Huckabee pulled out that handy anecdote he used to good effect at the Central High 40th-year commemoration a decade ago. It's about taking his daughter to the Holocaust museum in Israel, and how she wrote in the guest book: “Why didn't someone do something?”

Huckabee told the Ames straw voters: You are somebodies and it's time you did something.

Yes, I am sorry to have to report that Our Boy Mike likened voting against him in a straw vote to murdering millions of Jews.

He touted that flat national sales tax, which is so simple, Huckabee proclaimed, that a child running a lemonade stand could understand it.

The child probably would need to charge 40 percent, at least, if such a tax were structured to replace the income tax. And that would be the same rate Romney would pay on his best suit, or John Edwards on a trim.

There are considerations worthy of pondering in the notion of taxing what we choose to spend rather than what we manage to earn. But Huckabee comes nowhere close to an honest assessment of the details and complications.

By the time you designed such a tax to be fair, you'd have something approximately as convoluted as our income tax. You'd have to figure a way to exempt lower-cost purchases or stagger the rate according to the value or type of items or give low-income folks some kind of rebate. You'd actually need to define security holdings as consumption if wealthy people were to bear their proportional responsibility. Some fair-taxers want no remittances from business.

Huckabee's speech had one splendid metaphor. It was that straw voters should buy not only the box, but the cereal. I'm thinking Romney was the package and Huckabee the cornflake. And I'm thinking that could be the Republican ticket.

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