The latest poll from Iowa evidently shows Mike Huckabee with a five-point lead over Mitt Romney, elevating the likelihood of a fundamental schism within the Republican Party from "longshot" to "maybe 50-50." If Huckabee wins Iowa, which I now consider likely, he might get a bounce in South Carolina, and then from there it's a jump ball. The result will be not only the most fascinating Republican race in at least a half-century, but a major and long overdue debate about what their party is and the role of government itself in American life.
I'm just not sure this debate will unfold the way most seem to think it will. The prevailing narrative seems to be the anti-Clinton/pro-Bush coalition (for that's what it is, or was, from 1994 through 2004) will crack along the lines of "social conservatives" versus "fiscal conservatives." Huckabee, in this view (held by Sullivan among others), is candidate of religious fundamentalism, a politician inclined toward big government conservatism (more on that in a minute) but much more importantly, an actual man of faith rather than a well-coached stooge. Any of Romney, Giuliani and TV's Fred Thompson is the candidate of free-market fundamentalism, there primarily to cut taxes and otherwise comfort the comfortable. George W. Bush, of course, was the perfect leader for this coalition by virtue of effortlessly playing both roles.
But I think there's something even more fundamental about Huckabee that scares the Club for Growth, which is stepping up its attacks on an underfunded challenger who until a month ago barely registered in the polls. They call him "Tax Hike Mike"; he calls them "the Club for Greed." Their attack is that he has raised taxes; his counter-argument--which many of us have been waiting for years for Democrats to make--is that sometimes raising taxes is the appropriate and necessary thing to do. The Times does an admirable job sorting through the statistics and coming to some well-informed conclusions:
While taxes did rise in the 10 years that Mr. Huckabee was governor, the portrayal of him as a wild-eyed spendthrift is hardly apt. For the most part, Mr. Huckabee’s tax initiatives had wide bipartisan support, with the small number of Republicans in the overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature voting for the tax increases and many maintaining that the state was better for them.
“He got bipartisan support on all the tax increases,” said State Senator Kim Hendren, a veteran Republican and member of the legislative budget committee. “Huckabee didn’t say ‘I just want to raise taxes to start programs.’ He has a liberal heart for young people, for the disabled and for improving Arkansas’ lot in education, and he is pretty good at working across party lines.”
In general, Mr. Huckabee supported tax increases when he had a defined goal in mind, whether it was schools, roads or parks.
“He tended to raise taxes for specific government programs,” said Jay Barth, an associate political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. “He does believe in a robust government as an active force in the lives of its citizens, especially in helping the little guy.”
The other big tax increase, which also received bipartisan support, was the one on gasoline to pay for road improvements.
“Our roads were in terrible condition,” said Dennis Milligan, chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party. “We knew that in order to attract jobs and companies we needed better roads. Huckabee made a wise choice and now we have companies locating here and wonderful roads. He did a lot to improve roads, and you can’t do it for free.”
“Antitax radicals will never be convinced that tax monies can be legitimately spent on highways, bridges, schools and Medicare,” the campaign said in a response to the Club for Growth.
So: Huckabee raised taxes to improve infrastructure, services and amenities, using arguments informed by (among other things) economic development priorities--and he got overwhelming bipartisan support for his measures. Add in that he won re-election four times in a state that remains strongly Democratic at all levels under federal... and you suddenly see why he scares the shit out of the Club for Growth and the other anti-tax fanatics:
This is a guy who believes in competent governance that offers value to all citizens, not just the rich. A more striking contrast with the Bush/DeLay way of doing the public's business, in which offering tax cuts outweighs paying for wars of choice and the botched response to Hurricane Katrina represents not a human tragedy but proof that government can't find its ass with a map and a flashlight, one could not produce. At least not among Republicans.
That might read as oversimplistic, but give me another explanation. The Club for Growth isn't arguing that Huckabee's tax increases were wrong on the merits, or that they didn't yield the desired policy outcomes. That's not what they do; to them, it's not relevant. Any tax increase, under any circumstance, ever, is wrong. They shriek, "Aha! He raised taxes! He wants your money! And that's not his money--it's your money!"
The proper response to this is, and always has been, "It's also our government." As I've written here many times, we have some scary problems coming down the pike. We'll need a really effective government to handle them, and that government will require more robust revenues. The only way to secure those revenues is by making the case that it is our government, and its job is to act in ways that advance the public good.
It's ironic that it takes a Republican--one regarded by the social issues-fixated MSM as a "conservative"--to make this argument, which we desperately need. If Huckabee wins his party's nomination, that same media so inclined to focus on "God, guns and gays" might not be able to keep the country's eyes off the prize of other, more salient issues any longer--and it could spell the end of a dominant intra-party faction that has an active interest in fomenting bad government that facilitates inequality and keeps its foot on the economic necks of millions in the name of "freedom."
I don't want to see Huckabee in the White House; we don't need another faith-based presidency, even a more competent and well-intentioned one. But I wish him all the best right now.