Since Mike Huckabee suddenly looks like Iowa's winner, we have a burst of interest nationally in whether he is what they popularly call an economic conservative.
The New York Times delved into the matter Sunday, poring over Huckabee's tax increase record as governor of Arkansas and producing a report awash in contingencies and mitigation, otherwise known as fairness and balance.
The Times seemed to conclude that some of Huckabee's tax increases in Arkansas were necessary, or at least reasonable, to meet essential state services and keep a balanced budget.
But modern self-styled economic conservatives don't seem to care so much about what many of us consider essential state services.
By the contemporary definition of people on the Republican side who call themselves economic conservatives, the term encompasses the belief that taxes are onerous to the real virtue, meaning private sector economic growth. It further encompasses the belief that government is too large and active, and, therefore, should collect fewer and lower taxes so that it would necessarily be made smaller and less intrusive. That way, people could chase money more freely without government regulation.
Huckabee's right-wing critics who charge that he is not an economic conservative are right, at least by that definition and at least in reference to his record as governor of Arkansas.
Thank goodness they are and thank goodness he wasn't.
As I endeavored to explain to a national radio show last week, Huckabee is a bona fide social and cultural conservative, but, as governor of Arkansas for more than a decade, he behaved as an economic pragmatist or moderate. He saw a human need for services and usually stepped up to the executive responsibility to raise the money to provide those services.
The Club for Growth, that nest of extreme economic conservatism that abhors Huckabee because of that very sense of responsibility, sent out an e-mail boasting that a reporter in Arkansas had agreed with them that Huckabee was no economic conservative. Alas, the Club could probably use a higher caliber and more willing ally.
Here are some of the things in Huckabee's gubernatorial record that the Club for Growth deems at odds with economic conservatism and to his discredit as a candidate for president:
• Increasing motor fuel taxes to help facilitate a voter-approved bond debt of a billion dollars to repair our crumbled interstate highways.
• Three increases in the sales tax combining to amount to 1.5 cents, to address court-ordered school reforms, meet general budget needs and enhance conservation and recreation.
• Confronted by an initiated act that would have repealed sales taxes on groceries at state and local levels and not replaced the money, bankrupting cities and counties, Huckabee joined the rest of the government establishment in warning of the doom and persuading the voters to say no.
Huckabee passively accepted some of that, backed into a bit of it and wholly embraced some. He openly resisted higher taxes at times, even typically grandstanding inanely at one point by setting up a spoofing Tax Me More Fund for people to send in their voluntary taxes.
In the end, though, state government grew by a larger percentage under him than Bill Clinton.
That's not a bad thing. But the Club for Growth is positively salivating at the prospect of being able to tell Republicans that Huckabee is a more of a tax-and-spender than Clinton.
I've received e-mails from the outfit asking me to prove it. It depends on how you choose to assess the size of government. I'm counting the tobacco settlement manna and a billion dollars in highway debt. The matter is eminently spinnable.
This might be the fairest assessment: Huckabee's tax record is nearly a mirror of Clinton's. Both raised the sales tax by a penny-and-a-half, mostly for education. Both saw highway taxes increased. Huckabee let one sales tax increase become law without his signature. Clinton actually vetoed a highway tax increase, just for show, and encouraged that he be overridden.
Our interstate highways are better, our schools appear to have improved, more kids have health insurance and prisons are holding the bad guys.
If any of that poses a problem for Republican primary voters, well, it's their party.