As Mike Huckabee rises in the polls, an inevitable process of vetting him for conservative credentials is under way in which people who know nothing of Arkansas or of the circumstances of his governorship weigh in knowingly about his record. As his political consultant in the early ’90s and one who has been following Arkansas politics for 30 years, let me clue you in: Mike Huckabee is a fiscal conservative.
A recent column by Bob Novak excoriated Huckabee for a “47 percent increase in state tax burden.” But during Huckabee’s years in office, total state tax burden — all 50 states combined — rose by twice as much: 98 percent, increasing from $743 billion in 1993 to $1.47 trillion in 2005. In Arkansas, the income tax when he took office was 1 percent for the poorest taxpayers and 7 percent for the richest, exactly where it stood when he left the statehouse 11 years later. But, in the interim, he doubled the standard deduction and the child care credit, repealed capital gains taxes for home sales, lowered the capital gains rate, expanded the homestead exemption and set up tax-free savings accounts for medical care and college tuition.
Most impressively, when he had to pass an income tax surcharge amid the drop in revenues after Sept. 11, 2001, he repealed it three years later when he didn’t need it any longer. He raised the sales tax one cent in 11 years and did that only after the courts ordered him to do so. (He also got voter approval for a one-eighth-of-one-cent hike for parks and recreation.) He wants to repeal the income tax, abolish the IRS and institute a “fair tax” based on consumption, and opposes any tax increase for Social Security.
And he can win in Iowa.
When voters who have decided not to back Rudy Giuliani because of his social positions consider the contest between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, they will have no difficulty choosing between a real social conservative and an ersatz one. Romney, who began as a pro-lifer and switched in order to win in Massachusetts, and then flipped back again, cannot compete with a lifelong pro-lifer, Huckabee.
But Huckabee’s strength is not just his orthodoxy on gay marriage, abortion, gun control and the usual litany. It is his opening of the religious right to a host of new issues. He speaks firmly for the right to life, but then notes that our responsibility for children does not end with childbirth. His answer to the rise of medical costs is novel and exciting. “Eighty percent of all medical spending,” he says, “is for chronic diseases.” So he urges an all-out attack on teen smoking and overeating and a push for exercise not as the policies of a big-government liberal but as the requisites of a fiscal conservative anxious to save tax money.