The biggest mistake economic conservatives made in opposing Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign was to exaggerate the former Arkansas governor’s heterodoxy. A candidate who favors replacing the income tax with a national sales tax isn’t exactly a pro-life liberal. The biggest mistake Mike Huckabee made was explicitly running against economic conservatives, blasting the “Club for Greed” and the “Wall Street to Washington axis.”
Huckabee’s mistake was greater. While he did better than almost anyone thought possible, he lost the Republican nomination to a man who was initially unacceptable to most economic conservatives: John McCain. A candidate who could unite the right stood a real chance of derailing a rickety, underfunded Straight Talk Express. Ask George W. Bush.
But Huckabee doesn’t seem to have learned his lesson. In an interview with the Huffington Post, he excoriated unnamed proponents of a “soulless type of economic conservatism” and fretted that libertarianism was a greater threat to the Republican Party than liberalism. And he wasn’t talking about Bob Barr’s presidential candidacy.
In the process, Huckabee demonstrated a lack of understanding of the traditional conservative case for limited government:
If you have a breakdown in the social structure of a community, it’s going to result in a more costly government…police on the streets, prison beds, court costs, alcohol abuse centers, domestic violence shelters, all are very expensive. What’s the answer to that? Cut them out? Well, the libertarians say “yes, we shouldn’t be funding that stuff.” But what you’ve done then is exacerbate a serious problem in your community. You can take the cops off the streets and just quit funding prison beds. Are your neighborhoods safer? Is it a better place to live? The net result is you have now a bigger problem than you had before.
First, it’s obvious that conservatives — and even most libertarians — believe that funding police officers, court costs, prisons, and law enforcement in general are legitimate functions of government. They are far more interested in cutting welfare spending than any of these expenditures. Second, in this era of “compassionate conservatism” it is hard to find Republicans leading the charge for defunding alcohol abuse centers or domestic violent centers. Finally, what about the damage big government can do to our social structures?
It gets worse:
My experience in Arkansas was a lot of the so-called conservatives said “Let’s cut the budget.” But they wanted to add prison sentences, they wanted to eliminate parole, they wanted to have harsher sentences for various crimes. And I said “OK, that’s fine, but that’s going to be expensive. So which do you want?” You can’t have both, or you do what the federal government has done, and this is where I think Republicans have been especially irresponsible. Their approach has been [to] just kick the can down the road and let your grandkids pay for it.
Maybe that accurately describes the situation in some states, but the federal budget deficit is surely not a result of combining tax cuts with toughness on crime. Since 2001, federal spending has jumped $867 billion versus a $567 billion increase in tax revenues. By the end of 2006, non-defense discretionary spending had risen twice as fast under the current administration as under Bill Clinton.
Republicans in Washington were not ruthlessly cutting spending — they were increasing spending across the board, on education, prescription drugs, pork barrel projects, and defense without setting any priorities.
That is a far cry from the vision Huckabee worries might overtake the GOP: “[L]ook, we want to cut taxes and eliminate government. If it means that elderly people don’t get their Medicare drugs, so be it. If it means little kids go without education and healthcare, so be it.”
IF THESE WERE merely the musings of a presidential also-ran, perhaps they would be easy to dismiss. But Huckabee’s presidential campaign established him as one of the most important evangelical leaders in the country.
There is a trend among younger evangelicals toward embracing activist government. Huckabee spoke to it early in his campaign when he told the Des Moines Register, “I earn the right to push for a strong pro-life agenda only by making sure I’m concerned about poverty, hunger and homelessness.”
The problem isn’t the desire to help the poor or to grapple with the political limitations of economic conservatism in a new era of big government. The problem comes when good intentions trump results and self-righteousness substitutes for serious thought about what government can actually accomplish.
When the columnist and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson inveighs against the “antigovernment ideology” of his fellow conservatives, he often cites Hurricane Katrina as their “low point”: “The response of many Republicans was to use the disaster as an excuse for cutting government spending.” But who but the most blinkered ideologue looks at the federal reaction to Katrina as evidence of the competence and efficacy of munificent government? Who looks at the waste that poured forth after the Republican congressional leadership ignored the budget hawks seeking spending offsets and capitulated to the Gersons and sees a moral victory?
By stepping up his attacks on economic conservatives, Huckabee may have repeated the big mistake of his presidential bid. “The sound you just heard,” writes the blogger Daniel Larison, “was Mike Huckabee’s hypothetical 2012 campaign imploding.” Unless we are all big government conservatives now.
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