Political Hay

Tithe and Spend Republicans

Mike Huckabee is the kind of 2008 candidate who blends socially conservative politics with activist government.

By 2.4.07

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Mike Huckabee may be famous for dropping 100 pounds, but some fiscal conservatives lack confidence in his ability to trim the fat in government. The day after the former Arkansas governor entered the 2008 presidential race, the Club for Growth released a report on his fiscal record that was about as flattering as spandex on Huckabee's earlier bulky frame.

The Club tallied Huckabee's tax hikes (alongside his episodic tax cuts), spending increases, and new regulations before concluding that "calling oneself an economic conservative does not make one so." According to the Cato Institute's 2006 fiscal report card, Huckabee became less economically conservatives as he went along, going "from being one of the best governors in America to one of the worst."

Huckabee argued on Meet the Press that his critics -- "I gave [Cato] an F on their grading capacity" -- aren't telling the whole story. Perhaps he's right. There is certainly more to his expansive view of government than the occasional tax hike on beer and cigarettes.

The longtime Southern Baptist preacher sounds the usual conservative themes on abortion and marriage, but like a growing number of high-profile evangelicals, Huckabee tries to tie his socially conservative values to a broader agenda. "I earn the right to push for a strong pro-life agenda only by making sure I'm concerned about poverty, hunger and homelessness," he told a columnist for the Des Moines Register. "If I don't care about those issues, then my faith is incomplete."

So while Huckabee favors President Bush's capital gains tax cuts, he also wonders if his faith "confuses Republicans who are only concerned about how we preserve wealth." He is for a flat tax while also advocating increased funding for arts education, No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and an enlarged government role in preventive health care.

Another GOP presidential candidate seeking to appeal to evangelicals and other religious conservatives, Sen. Sam Brownback, has been more of a conventional Republican in his domestic policy preferences. Yet from his concern about Darfur to his call for ending cancer in ten years, Brownback evinces a degree of optimism about what politics can accomplish that is uncharacteristic of the right.

Religious conservatives have taken a disproportionate amount of the blame for the Republican Party's growing tolerance for big government. These arguments are mostly bogus. In fact, social conservatives have been among the strongest supporters of smaller government within the GOP while moderates have frequently been as squishy on tax rates and spending as on abortion.

But religious conservatives haven't been immune from the increasing statism on the right. Many are shifting their political emphasis away from defensive action -- preventing government encroachment against churches, Christian homeschoolers, religious charities, and civil society more generally -- toward an overly ambitious public moralism. This can be detected in the fiscal heterodoxies of evangelical-tinged Republicans like Huckabee and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley as well as the compassionate conservatism on stilts of writers like Michael Gerson.

At first, this new moralism posed little threat to the existing conservative coalition because it mainly manifested itself in advocacy of humanitarian stances abroad. While only a minority of conservatives are as interested in Sudan as Brownback, a majority favored an activist foreign policy after 9/11. First Things editor Joseph Bottum even posited a "new fusionism" between "[t]he opponents of abortion and euthanasia" and "[t]he opponents of Islamofascism and rule by terror."

It didn't take long, however, for the implications of this new fusionism to threaten the old as some religious conservatives gradually began to change their thinking on domestic affairs. Speaking at The American Spectator's Newsmaker Breakfast last week, Dick Morris described Huckabee's sympathy for activist government as part of "a new pro-life paradigm."

The candidate doesn't seem to disagree. Here is Huckabee in an interview with the Des Moines Register:

At times people in my party scratch their heads and say, "Why are you dealing with inadequate housing?" I say, "How can you ignore that? Can you say as long as a kid didn't get aborted, heck, we don't care where he lives? Or as long as a kid didn't get aborted, we don't care if he gets an education? As long as we didn't abort the child, we don't care if he has access to health care?"

The new religious right that Republicans like Huckabee and Brownback are trying to build is in many respects admirable and appealing. The moral implications of the Christian faith are obviously broader than single-issue politics and sex, something an older breed of organized religious conservatives sometimes seemed to forget. But four decades of activist government have taught us the pitfalls of effecting social change from Washington; those consequences won't be ameliorated simply by putting more faithful bureaucrats in charge.

It would be a shame if religious conservatives tried to correct their own mistakes by repeating the Great Society liberals'. There was a good reason another man from Hope claimed to believe the era of big government was over.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.