Wednesday, March 15, 2006

WEDNESDAY EDITORIAL >> Huckabee train slows

After nearly a year of circuit riding in the early presidential precincts of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, our former preacher turned politician got his chance on the big stage Saturday. Gov. Huckabee’s speech to the Republican midterm convention at Memphis, an early cattle show for presidential aspirants, earned him some offhand notice in the public prints, blogs and TV shows. It didn’t make him, but it didn’t break him either. He barely registered in the straw poll of preferences, but Sen. Bill Frist, the native son, had that stacked anyway.

We would guess that Huckabee got enough encouragement to keep him going, but then that threshold did not need to be high. He makes a pretty good speech, tells a good yarn, effects an agreeable rhythm, and your attention is called to that skinny though slightly hunched frame. Everyone is reminded that this is the politician who shed more than a hundred pounds.

Mike Huckabee is a distant candidate for the Grand Old Party in ’08, and we suspect that he will be nothing more than that a year from now or even two years from now, if he remains until the primaries begin. He has a single chance to emerge as a major candidate and that rests on his ability to make a fetching speech. Regardless of his rhetoric at Memphis and elsewhere in his travels, his record as a tax-and-spend, big-government politician won’t help in a party that is now captive of the far right. His personal story, unlike the prisoner-of-war John McCain’s, is not compelling: a Baptist preacher who goes into politics and melts off a hundred pounds of baby fat under medical-school supervision.

Compared with George W. Bush, Huckabee is Pericles incarnate, and his oratorical skill stacks up well also against Frist, Sen. John McCain and the other potential candidates. But we are reminded that the best speechmakers in Republican primaries going back to 1988 got nowhere. The absolute worst won the nomination every time: George H. W. Bush in ’88 and ’92, Bob Dole in ’96 and the Bush son in 2000 and 2004. Without a script neither Bush could talk his way out of a jaywalking ticket, and people were known to have fallen asleep exchanging hellos with Dole.

But making the other candidates seem inarticulate is Huckabee’s only ticket. May the muses inspire him or else we will not soon have another governor rise to the highest office in the land.

Accounts of the governor’s brief oration at Memphis do not encourage us. His big applause line, that “I’d still rather fight the terrorists in Baghdad than Boston any day of the week,” is a tired variation of the most popular refrain in Republican politics. The Bush administration pushes that line as a rhetorical justification for the war in Iraq. The conservative Washington journal, the Weekly Standard, had a lengthy piece about all the variations uttered by members of the administration and Republican supporters and pundits: “I’d rather meet the terrorists in Tikrit than in Tahoe,” etc. Besides, while it sounds good it is meaningless. Terrorism in Baghdad is a product of the war, not cause of it. So the governor needs to find fresh material, not mine the Republican talking points.

As part of our encyclopedic political counsel, we suggest that he try to distinguish himself from the propaganda mill. Like the other speakers, Huckabee picked up all the refrains: defense of Bush’s war and warmaking tactics, attacks on abortion and gays, cheers for tax cuts, spending restraints and fiscal conservatism in general.

Here was a chance to abandon the official hypocrisy. Fiscal conservatism? Not many Republican conservatives really believe that this administration and the national party invoke those values. Not when Congress this week is taking up a resolution to expand the nation’s debt ceiling to $9 trillion so that the government does not have to renege on its obligations for the first time in history.

Huckabee could call on the party to return to its fundamental principles but he hasn’t, so far. He has been pointing out that he has balanced the budgets in Arkansas for 10 years, but of course in Arkansas the Constitution requires it and he would risk jail if he didn’t.

But his embrace of the principle of limited government was hollow, even if it got polite applause. He said that he had rammed through the only tax cut in Arkansas in decades over the objections of critics who said he would be wrecking the budget. The crowd, except for a few Arkies, could not have known that the tax cut of 1997 was written by Democratic lawmakers, sponsored by the Democratic leader and passed 96-0 in the House of Representatives. Unlike the Bush tax cuts, its rewards went to working families and not the super-rich. Huckabee said “good job” and signed it.

Few of them knew as well that the tax cut of 1997 was followed by a string of tax increases largely on Arkansas working families that far offset the little income tax cut: three sales tax increases, expansion of the sales tax to many services, an income tax surcharge, gasoline taxes, diesel taxes, cigarette and tobacco taxes and a drivers license increase. The delegates may not have known that he helped arrange the largest expansions of government-paid medical care in Arkansas history (largely paid by U.S. taxpayers), compiled a larger general-obligation debt than all previous governors combined, increased the number of government employees by 20 percent (to 52,440 in January) in only nine and a half years and conducted a liberal policy of criminal pardons and commutations.

That is not limited government. It happens that we think the governor might want to brag about a few of those things that he accomplished with the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature because they made our society better, but they are not what you tell a very conservative constituency like a gathering of current Republican faithful. We understand the governor’s predicament, but we hate to see him mislead. Our final advice: Be the John McCain of 2008. Tell it like it is. They will respect you for it tomorrow.