For a man who did not have that much to run from, Mike Huckabee has spent inordinate time repudiating his past.
Before his campaign for president has really got off the ground, Huckabee has thrice denied any association with a good part of his record as governor — the salutary part. At least St. Peter wept over his denials.
But the apostle did not have to contend with the Club for Growth, the rich man's fraternity that has bedeviled our former governor with charges that he was a big taxer and spender as governor for 10 ½ years, not the flinthearted reactionary he is pretending to be.
Before the cock crowed at the Iowa debates Huckabee fired off a letter to television stations and the rest of the media telling the stations not to run commercials that said he had raised taxes and spending and expanded government in Arkansas. Absolutely not true, he said. He blamed spending on the Democratic legislature and higher taxes on Arkansas voters and the state Supreme Court. All he did, Huckabee insisted, was slash government spending and fight for lower taxes.
Even Republicans would jeer if he had said that in Arkansas.
Huckabee said one of his Republican opponents was behind the commercials but that he had not identified him yet. He knew that was nonsense. The Club for Growth has not endorsed a candidate. The source of the ads is pretty clearly in Arkansas: Republican Club for Growthers who felt betrayed by Huckabee's fiscal liberalism, mainly Jackson T. Stephens Jr., a libertarian businessman whom the governor had once promised to work for repeal of the sales tax on groceries.
The ads were precisely on point, if considerably restrained, in identifying Huckabee's activist bent as governor. His record as a whole in taxing, borrowing, spending and expanding the activities of government makes him the biggest taxer and spender in Arkansas history. Winthrop Rockefeller tried to do more and failed. Dale Bumpers and Sid McMath served only 35 percent of Huckabee's tenure.
It would be charitable to call Huckabee's letter about his record misleading. It was a marvel of disingenuousness.
• It said he had balanced the state budget every year. He couldn't have unbalanced it if he had wanted to. The law balances it automatically whoever is governor.
• It said he had cut welfare rolls in half. The 1996 federal welfare law did that.
• As for the Club for Growth's criticism that he had raised the sales tax for recreational programs, he blamed that on the voters who had approved it at a referendum. He said he would have violated his oath of office if he had tried to thwart the voters' will. He didn't reveal that he had made that tax a personal crusade, stumping the state for it and taking his big bass boat down the Arkansas River to promote the tax.
• He said the ad was wrong in saying that he had raised the gasoline tax. Arkansas voters passed the tax on diesel, he said. Wrong entirely. The legislature passed his gasoline tax and he signed it into law. He signed an accompanying diesel tax, too, but it went into effect only if voters approved a bond issue. The ballot made no mention of a tax increase. They did not put the tax on the ballot because it would have been defeated. The bond issue passed.
• He claimed to be responsible for the first broad-based tax cut in Arkansas history (no, there were others), including indexing of the income tax for inflation, an increase in the standard deduction and child-care tax credits. That omnibus tax cut in 1997 was not his but the Democratic tax program sponsored by the Democratic leader of the House. His predecessor, Jim Guy Tucker, had proposed it. Huckabee signed it, his own little program having failed.
• He said the Supreme Court was responsible for the big sales tax of 2003. No, it was his and the legislature's judgment that higher taxes were the best way to comply with the court order to equalize school spending.
• That 50 percent increase in state spending while he was governor that the Growthers cited, he said, was mainly spending under the legislature's control, not his. No, every dollar of spending is appropriated by the legislature and every appropriation is subject to gubernatorial veto. The legislature almost uniformly adopted the governor's spending recommendations.
• He claimed to have cut taxes 94 times. These were nearly altogether tiny deductions and exemptions that the Democratic legislature has passed every session for 50 years. He didn't initiate them.
Here is the truth about Mike Huckabee's reign. He was largely a passive executive, who usually left initiative to the legislature. He was roused to passion for nine initiatives, each a sharp expansion of government activity or control: the dramatic expansion of government health insurance for children, the CHART program to combat health deficiencies with tobacco-settlement funds and later higher cigarette taxes, the sales tax for recreation, the consolidation of small and middle-sized schools (under 500 students), highway taxes, and two big bond issues each for highways and universities. All made Arkansas a better place.
Mike Huckabee has chosen instead to run on the records of the governors of neighboring Mississippi and Missouri, true hidebound reactionaries. His low opinion of Iowa Republicans is probably deserved, but if they are ever given the chance they may not appreciate dishonesty.