Columns » Ernest Dumas

Jekyll and Huck

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It is time to acknowledge that Gov. Huckabee’s longshot race for the presidency has actually gathered a puff of steam. The notion that he could seriously contend for the Republican nomination is no longer laughable, just a mighty stretch.

Huckabee’s relentless pursuit of media in battleground states keeps getting him nice little reviews. His weight loss and healthy-eating kick are usually the tease, but they give him a chance to exhibit some wit and to make the case that he might be the best conservative/moderate/progressive in the field.

Yes, depending on the venue and the audience, all of those, and sometimes all of them at once.

In an interview with a Washington, D.C., newspaper last week he talked about being a conservative and cutting taxes, but he also said the Republican Party, as Democrats like to say, is often guilty of favoring rich people and he characterized himself as the opposite of stereotypical Republican politicians, who grew up rich in politically connected families and went to Ivy League schools (read George W. Bush).

Bipolar politics has always been Huckabee’s strongest suit. No one is better at saying one thing, doing the opposite and getting credit for both, of talking small government and actually promoting big government. Huckabee can do that in Arkansas, a peculiarly bipolar state where people think of themselves as conservative but like populist stands.

In the polite atmosphere and uncontested forums of exploratory presidential politics, it also works. But he will find it harder to do once a real campaign begins. Conflicting stands catch up with you, and carefully nuanced stands do not work in a Republican primary. For both fiscal conservatives and evangelical Christians, the big constituencies, you are either with them or against them.

Talking to a Republican Carolina audience, Huckabee could draw laughter and applause by making fun of gay marriage as a precursor to marriage with animals, but in New Hampshire a few weeks later he implied that while he opposed gay marriage he might be receptive to recognizing a civil commitment by gay and lesbian couples.

Huckabee is trying to make the case that he is the true “compassionate conservative,” the tag that George W. Bush once claimed but surrendered long ago. His visit to the Dallas Morning News produced a puff article that promoted that view. While Huckabee is pro-life, it said, unlike some other evangelicals he cares about the children after they are born. He creates a big government program to take care of their medical needs.

In the interview with the Washington Examiner, Huckabee said issues like teen-age pregnancy were not abstractions for him.

“For every social pathology there is, I can put a name and face to it. It’s not abstract to me. If someone talks about a 14-year-old girl who is pregnant and hasn’t told her parents, I’ve talked to her.” The article did not mention that in 1996 as a new governor Huckabee flouted federal law by refusing to allow Medicaid money to be used for an abortion for a mentally retarded girl who was raped. But beyond that, he really has given little more than lip service to the anti-abortion crusade.

But Huckabee’s real troubles may be with the fiscal hardliners. Already, the Club for Growth tails him wherever he goes. After the Examiner article, in which Huckabee said he thought Bush’s tax cuts for the rich should be made permanent even though he agreed that the party often favored the wealthy, the director of government affairs for the rich man’s club wrote a letter to the newspaper accusing Huckabee of trying to falsify his conservative record.

“On the surface,” he wrote, “Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee may come across as a sensible lawmaker with a silver tongue, but if one takes a closer look at his record, you’ll see a hornet’s nest of fiscal liberalism.”

Huckabee has never been a lawmaker, sensible or foolish, but the observation is not so far off the mark. He has not governed as a right-winger. While next door Gov. Haley Barbour, the former GOP national director, has been trying to slash Medicaid benefits to the Mississippi poor, Huckabee has been working twice as hard to expand them in Arkansas. While he signed two modest tax cuts, he has supported and signed even more and fatter tax increases. The number of state government workers has risen 20 percent on his watch and the state’s general-obligation debt has risen by some $800 million — more than the accumulated debt under all previous governors, unadjusted for inflation — and it would have risen much more if the voters last year had not smacked him down on highway and college bonds.

If he is hanging around when the race really begins, Huckabee will have to decide whether he’s going to compete with Rudy Giuliani and John McCain for the once mainstream, establishment Republican constituency or go for the right wingers. George Bush, a much less adept man, might have kept a foot planted in both camps but he had those family and Ivy League connections that Huckabee abhors.

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