If it is true that Mike Huckabee has hauled himself close to the first tier of Republican presidential candidates, he is the beneficiary of some blind luck and a fickle media, the same that he loved to hate back in Arkansas.
All the Republican candidates except Huckabee have been on a slide since summer, the plunging Rudy Giuliani being the only one still surviving 20 percent in national polls. The political reporters looked for a new story and found it in Huckabee's contrast — his easy wit and sunny manner in a field of dour and angry men, his glib performance in the debates, his willingness from time to time before the right audience to veer from the right-wing orthodoxy that held the other candidates in thrall.
Moderate to liberal commentators, like David Brooks and Gail Collins in the New York Times, found him refreshing. Collins said Huckabee would be a terrible president but she wondered why the religious right did not jump on his bandwagon. She wondered if it was because he wanted a generous government to extend protections to kids outside the womb.
But it is precisely because religious conservatives have finally bought into Huckabee's long-shot campaign that he finds himself in contention in Iowa and rising in national polls. It illustrates that Huckabee has either reinvented himself in the national campaign or else we underestimated his dexterity at the oldest political art, telling everyone what they want to hear and getting away with it.
Take immigration. Back in Arkansas, Huckabee won the hearts of civil libertarians by championing the cause of Hispanics, seeking state-funded scholarships and health care for the children of undocumented aliens and denouncing the Know Nothings from Northwest Arkansas who wanted to round them up and jail them or send them back to Mexico. Those Christians drank “a different Jesus juice” than he did, the governor quipped. He favored President Bush's plan to offer an easier way toward citizenship. It has won him some favorable attention in the media.
But at the “values summit” last week Huckabee had sipped the more bitter ecclesiastical juice. He outdid even Tom Tancredo in immigrant bashing. “We need to make it clear that we will say ‘no' to amnesty and ‘no' to sanctuary cities and ‘no' to the idea that there can be some complete ignoring of the fact that our laws have been broken,” he thundered. “Build a fence! Secure the border and do it now!” He brought the crowd to its feet and ran away with the straw poll.
Like all the others except Ron Paul he embraces the orthodoxy that President Bush is waging a good war in the Middle East, declaring that we are already in World War III, but for the rising number of Republicans who are disaffected he has insinuated a different message, that the administration has eroded America's standing in the world and imperils it further by refusing to engage in direct diplomacy with Iran, which had helped the administration in the search for al Qaida and with the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Huckabee's ability to do one thing, claim quite the opposite and get credit for both was best on display with the one issue where every candidate spoke with a single mind: taxes. Huckabee claimed the purest anti-tax record, having forced the first serious tax cut in Arkansas history through a tax-crazy Democratic legislature and having cut taxes no less than 94 times. The Club for Growth, the rich man's lobby, has bedeviled him on that, calling him “Tax Hike Mike.” As the Democrat-Gazette pointed out last month, Huckabee raised taxes far more than he cut them.
His explanations have been anything but honest. He claimed that two of the big tax increases were ratified by the voters (only one was) and beyond his means of stopping, failing to mention that he campaigned hard for both of them. His campaign points out that he refused to sign the biggest tax increase, a 7/8ths of one percent sales tax in 2003, but he had pleaded with the legislature to raise taxes and did not sign the bill because the legislators had rejected his other initiative, to consolidate more small schools and thus cut administrative waste.
Even the Democrat-Gazette now gives him credit for forcing the big tax cut ($97 million) in 1997 through the Democratic legislature. But that bill, an omnibus overhaul of the income tax code, was proposed by his predecessor, Jim Guy Tucker, and was the Democratic Party's initiative, signed by 83 of the 88 Democratic House members and no Republican. Huckabee's tax cut proposal — a $25 rebate check every fall to each tax-return filer — never got out of committee. Those other 90 or so tax cuts on his watch? Nearly all were sponsored by Democratic legislators and were not a part of Huckabee's program. He signed them when they hit his desk.
The good Huckabee surfaces grudgingly from time to time. Every tax increase was, in fact, for a good cause and he occasionally says that he makes no apology for trying to protect and improve services to the people.
“I very often accepted the leadership of Democratic lawmakers to move my state forward,” however heartwarming it would be for most people, is not a good debating point in the Republican primaries, and that is too bad.