In the season of extreme political makeovers, Mike Huckabee stands out only for the frequency and cleverness of his mutations and the appearance that he alone can get away with them.
Mitt Romney, the classic seaboard liberal Republican, renounced his past but Republicans are disbelieving of the conversion or resentful. Hillary Clinton has subtly emphasized first one and then another aspect of her personality as her essence but it has only made her seem calculating.
Huckabee has renounced none of his record or his remarks — denied them, yes, but not repudiated them. Critics like the Club for Growth make a good case that as governor he was a big-government taxer and spender, not the classic conservative that he claims to be. He denies it, but confronted with the cold facts he is able to put a human face on his deeds.
But the least convincing label is the latest one pinned on him by all the media: populist. How refreshing they find it that a Republican bleeds for the poor working stiff and rages against Wall Street and callous business. Huckabee has been quite amazing as the champion of the sunburned sons of toil and underdogs everywhere. Upon his victory in Iowa he revealed that he left preaching for politics when he realized that the nation's political leaders sided not with the workers who struggled to pay the family's light and doctor's bills but with the guy who handed them their pink slips. No successful Arkansas politician since Jeff Davis, the tribune of the haybinders, has sounded a more virulent populism even if it has a smarmy rather than a hard edge.
He backed up the rhetoric by, alone of the Republican candidates, speaking to labor and National Education Association conventions (though he stiffed the Arkansas teachers union for eight years because it did not endorse him in 1998). Although he crossed the picket line to get on the Jay Leno show, he said he favored the union in the writers' dispute with the studios.
It is unconvincing because nothing in his political past showed any particular sympathy for labor. His office interfered with the state Workers Compensation Commission, his administration's one point of contact with workers, to stack the commission against injured workers and their families and to oust hearing officers who tended to favor workers' claims. One unfair dismissal engineered by Huckabee cost the state $125,000. A Huckabee appointee to the commission said the governor's office ordered him to fire the hearing officer, and attorneys for Wal-Mart also pressured him because the woman had ruled against the company in a job-injury case.
His one claim for helping workers was the state minimum wage law in 2006, but business interests pleaded with him and the legislature to pass a minimum wage bill to block a much tougher version in a constitutional amendment that would have been on the ballot that fall.
Huckabee has boasted all year about cutting working people's taxes, recalling again in the Monday night debate in New Hampshire that he rammed through the heavily Democratic legislature the first broad-based tax cut in 160 years. It was not the first serious tax cut, but unlike any of the Bush tax cuts it did help mainly working people.
But how did it happen? Gov. Jim Guy Tucker proposed a package of tax cuts aimed at low- and middle-class families in the spring of 1996. But before the legislature met Tucker resigned after a Whitewater conviction. The Democratic legislative caucus adopted his plan as its major initiative. Speaker Bobby Hogue and 82 other Democrats sponsored it, and it passed with no opposition. Huckabee proposed mailing people a $25 check every year instead, but his plan went nowhere.
“Gov. Tucker had worked on that program for so long,” Hogue recalled this week, “and we felt like it was good for the working people. We felt like we ought to pass it out of respect for Gov. Tucker.”
One lawmaker who worked on the package said Huckabee had absolutely nothing to do with it. “I guarantee you,” he said, “that Huckabee had almost no knowledge of what was going on and paid no attention to it. We were amazed the next year when he took credit for it in the campaign, and he's taken credit for it ever since.”
While he has at times seemed to criticize his party and the Bush administration for favoring the rich and corporations with tax cuts instead of working people, he supported all the Bush tax cuts and says he would extend them when they run out. And while he maintains that his own crazy tax overhaul, a 30 percent national sales tax to replace most other individual and corporate taxes, would help the poor and middle class, it would instead be a massive shift of the fiscal burden from the very wealthy and corporations to working families.
On the Leno show last week, Huckabee explained why the sales tax would work so well: “First of all, you eliminate the underground economy. Everyone is paying [the tax]: drug dealers, prostitutes, pimps, gamblers. . .” His choice of examples is a perfect illustration of the plan's goofiness.
To keep the tax rate as low as 30 percent, the so-called Fair Tax does indeed depend on every last part of the retail economy collecting the tax for services rendered, including Huckabee's drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps. Exactly how many drug dealers do you think will remit a check to the U. S. Treasury every month? The appeal of the plan, as Huckabee always points out, is that there would be no IRS — no enforcement.
Non-compliance would be so massive, experts say, that the tax rate would have to be 50 percent on every transaction, maybe more. Take that, Joe Lunchbucket.
Whatever is the opposite of populism, this would be it.