Whatever his iniquities as a politician and propagandist, you have to credit Mike Huckabee with one endearing quality that sets him apart from his Republican brethren. He is capable of occasional honesty about the burning issues of the day.
It is a muted honesty, to be sure, but it still distinguishes him from all the other Republicans who are or were or want to run for president. OK, you can except Ron Paul from the generalization, but he hardly counts.
Huckabee was speaking at the Clinton Library last week plugging his new book and he said Republicans ought to own up to some responsibility for the massive federal debt.
The venue might have made him do it — the Clinton School had invited him and he was high in his praise of it — but he has said something like that before, though always in an understated way. Two months ago on his radio show, he said, "I never understood when it became a mark of conservatism to run up debt on your children's credit card instead of biting the bullet and paying your own bills." It was something of an apologia for his own many tax increases as governor of Arkansas, for which he has been savaged by the millionaire wing of his party, and, I would like to think, a rebuke to all the Republicans who loved cutting taxes in the last decade and now want to do lots more of it while denouncing the deficits, as if they started when Barack Obama took office. Huckabee noted that Ronald Reagan had raised taxes a number of times.
Sadly, as soon as Huckabee got back to the Fox studios, he was back on message — the Republican message. Much of his Sunday night TV show was given to demagoguing the sideshow of the week, Sen. Tom Coburn's latest diatribe against scientists and the National Science Foundation and the long-ago famous study of "sick shrimp on treadmills." Grinning, he repeated Coburn's silly descriptions of the research project (the study of the immune response of crustaceans like shrimp to disease was considered important for the giant maritime industry on the Gulf Coast).
But what if he had instead belabored the point he made in Little Rock, if only a little? He might have at least changed the dialogue in his former state, where no one — neither Democrat nor Republican — has been willing to even hint at the truth since the black man with the exotic name became president. That truth is that the trillion-plus deficits and the $14 trillion debt are primarily a Republican concoction.
Huckabee's Little Rock remarks implied that Republicans bore only part of the responsibility for the debt and maybe not the largest part. But the arithmetic and history are so simple that most Americans have no trouble grasping it.
Deficits and an accumulating debt are the products of one or both of two factors, declining government revenues and rising government spending. The facts:
Revenues — The first round of Republican tax cuts occurred in 2001. It took six years until federal income taxes returned to the level of 2000, which was a little over $1 trillion. That annual shortfall is built into today's deficits and will be forever, until the tax rates are changed. That accounts for some $2.5 trillion of the current $14 trillion debt. Then the economic collapse in 2007 brought on by President Bush and his party accounted directly for more than $1.5 trillion of the debt at the end of 2010. The government's tax receipts fell from nearly $2.6 trillion in fiscal 2007 to $2.1 trillion in 2009. They still are nowhere close to 2007 and won't be for two more years, or much longer if the Republican House succeeds in engineering a double-dip recession. That shortfall every year adds to the debt.
Spending — The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which were financed by debt rather than taxes, added more than $1 trillion to the debt. Total defense spending, including the wars, has risen from less than $200 billion a year when Bush took office to more than $700 billion a year. The Republican Medicare expansion in 2003 to enrich insurance and pharmaceutical companies, also paid for by debt instead of new taxes, accounts for about $100 billion a year in new debt.
But the Republican mantra, proclaimed by Arkansas's three Republican congressmen and one senator, is that Obama's spending accounts for the deficit and the only solution is to end Medicare as an entitlement, require the elderly and disabled to buy medical insurance, cut environmental and education spending, and cut rich people's and corporations' taxes. (Obama's real contribution to the deficits: extended unemployment benefits and his stimulus program, which cut taxes and spent $300 billion over three years shoring up state and local governments and creating private-industry jobs.)
No one much disputes the Republican theology in Arkansas — except the nouveau Floridian Mike Huckabee.
But the polls show that in most of the country, if not Arkansas, people get it. One national poll after another has shown that people believe Bush rather than Obama is responsible for the recession and the big deficits. An April poll showed 41 percent blaming Bush and 14 percent Obama. And by huge majorities — more than 70 percent — they think restoring 2001-level taxes on high incomes and corporations must be part of deficit reduction. Even rank-and-file Republicans believe it. President Reagan's budget chief said it had to happen. Alan Greenspan, the Republican economic guru for 30 years, said all taxes should be restored to their 2001 levels (even then they were at one of the lowest levels since 1929) rather than gut programs.
What the Republicans, and the country, need is a bold Mike Huckabee but one who would tell the truth all the time.