Monday, March 05, 2007

I Heart Am Not Unalterably Opposed To Huckabee

Daniel Larison, looking at the numbers from another meaningless straw poll, observes that "virtually nobody hearts Huckabee." Meanwhile, Ogged and Becks at Unfogged are wondering why nobody on the Republican side seems to be taking former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee seriously as a Republican candidate. Myself, I couldn't guess. I mean, I figure I know enough about the nature of the presidential primary and funding and media cycles to come up with some decent explanations as to why Huckabee isn't outpolling Sam Brownback for the Christian right vote, or Mitt Romney for the support of the Republican establishment, but I wouldn't wager money on any of them. The higher mysteries of becoming a presidential candidate are beyond me. Moreover, I don't particularly care too much, as I can't see myself voting for Huckabee for president anyway, even assuming he got that far; his approach to taxes, immigration, labor and a dozen other issues are pretty standard corporate GOP fare, and that's nothing I care to support.

Still, all things considered, there are things I kind of like about Huckabee, things that I wouldn't mind seeing injected into a presidential campaign. We lived in Arkansas for three years, and in that time, Huckabee handled some hard issues as responsibly as I think anybody could, and he stood firm on some important, simple ones as well. It could well be that it is these very things that I like about him--mostly, Minivet notes, involving the "Carter-y social-activism side of the Christian political tradition"--that are making him less than popular with the Republican primary base; if so, so much the worse for the Republican base (though, honestly, I probably couldn't have a much lower opinion of them than I do already). Anyway, herewith three reasons why someone like myself thinks well of Huckabee:

1. He resolutely opposed, and forced the Republican party in the state to oppose, any move towards establishing a state lottery. The pressure to do so from various interest groups and government agencies was immense; every state surrounding Arkansas has a lottery, and the mournful cries about dollars lost to other states were (and still are) constant. But Huckabee's line in the sand was the right one to draw: lotteries draw money away from the most at-risk populations and families, and their returns simply aren't worth the civic costs. This may seem like a small point--and a question which would be moot for a presidential candidate anyway--but it connects to a much larger and harder stand Huckabee took.

2. Huckabee dealt with a peculiar public education crisis in Arkansas, and he pushed through a solution to it--a partial and incomplete solution, to be sure, but a solution nonetheless--that avoided the typical delusion that lottery money would save the schools (a delusion that those contesting for the governor's chair after him appear willing to give in to). Lots of states have a hard time raising revenue for their schools, of course; what made Arkansas's crisis peculiar was, as I explained in part here, it was driven by a long series of state court cases arising out of extreme inequities of funding between various school districts in the state. Obviously, any real solution to the terrible unfairness in the level of public education available to different populations around the country has got to involve, among other things, rethinking the property-tax basis for school funding; outside such egalitarian reforms, however--and the political will for such certain wasn't present in Arkansas--you either have to raise taxes, cut costs, or find some better way to move the existing money around. Huckabee proposed the latter, struggling to get a controversial school district consolidation act through the legislature which would have significantly redistributed state funds to many of the newer, larger districts. This made him extremely unpopular with conservative rural white voters across much of the state. (Even though, as it happened, the school districts most frequently affected by the plan finally adopted were majority African-American ones from the eastern Delta region, since for historical and economic reasons those were the districts whose tax base and demographic stability--some would occasionally have fewer than 70 students in the whole district--were so low as to defy efforts to make them self-sustaining.) A communitarian with populist and localist sympathies like me shouldn't like school consolidation, and I don't--in principle. There were teachers I knew in small school districts who were appalled at what their Republican governor was doing. But in the real world, to deny that the state itself is also a community, one which can claim the allegiance of its citizens and thus impress upon them their mutual obligations to every child in its borders, is foolish. Huckabee's plan wasn't perfect, he didn't get exactly what he wanted, and its application has been slow, regardless. Still, it was a realistic plan, it provided more money, played no favorites, allowed for exceptions for particularly isolated or well-performing districts, and took some of the pressure off poor schools. It's what governors are supposed to do.

3. Finally, Huckabee's actions regarding social policy as governor show him to be a lot closer to the kind of thoughtful "compassionate conservative" that John DiIulio thought George W. Bush would be, but wasn't. He seems to be fully aware--or, at least, more aware than most Republicans--that when it comes to people making moral and healthy (and thus beneficial in a civic sense) lifestyle choices, one's economic and environmental context matters. So he leaned on school districts to cut their reliance on junk food sales to raise money, and pushed through laws banning the sale of sugar-loaded sodas in the elementary schools and making regular BMI testing available. He's a proponent of "covenant marriage," recognizing that fighting poverty--not just the pure lack of jobs and/or terrible wages for the underclass (though he did do something about that latter point), but also the financial and emotional disarray which perpetuates many people's existence in that category--often means fighting the culture of easy divorce and the lack of enforcement of economic obligations which comes along with it. Does this make him "moralistic" or "judgmental"? Darn straight it does. But his moralistic interference, at least insofar as his actions in Arkansas indicate, flows from an aggressive, even egalitarian concern for social betterment, not a crusade to convert.

So, is he a real egalitarian? Probably not. But he, like Governor Bob Riley of Alabama, has at least attempted to introduce socially and morally egalitarian policies and arguments into the Republican playbook. If conservatives are truly interested in "conserving" families and civic health and decency, they'd give Huckabee another--and much longer--look.

13 comments:

The Barefoot Bum said...

I'm not persuaded, frankly. Seems like he did a few good things, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Russell Arben Fox said...

I'd like to think Huckabee's a bit more than a stopped clock, but let's face it, we're dealing with a Republican from Arkansas here. You take what you can get. All I'm saying is that he's done some good things for good reasons, which is more than one can say for some of the GOP hopefuls.

djw said...

Russell, in a similar vein you should take a look at this post from Ezra Klein:
http://ezraklein.typepad.com/blog/2007/03/huckabee_and_cr.html

I think Ezra's comments are spot-on, and this is a marvelous thing to hear from any politician, R or D. I have predictable liberal objections to faith-based prison rehabilitation programs as policy, but they pale in comparison to my objections to the status quo of our approach to corrections.

My hope is that Huckabee isn't taken seriously as a candidate, so he remains free to speak his mind. He'd be a terrible president (so would any Republican at this point given the party they'd be beholden to) but for the first time in a long time, I can imagine a Republican making a positive contribution to American political discourse.

djw said...

Looks like the link didn't fit. Let's try again.

Huckabee on crime

Russell Arben Fox said...

David, thanks for that link. I'd missed that comment of Huckabee's from the Salon interview; it's very revealing of the kind of person he is.

Hugo said...

DJW has it about right. You and I, Russell, share a fascination with communitarian values (even as I've felt myself pulled inexorably back towards the left on a few issues since the '04 election.) And I long to see a Christian conservatism that is genuinely compassionate, that sees a Christian agenda as being more about responding to the cry of the poor than the private misuse of the pelvis.

Russell Arben Fox said...

"I long to see a Christian conservatism that is genuinely compassionate, that sees a Christian agenda as being more about responding to the cry of the poor than the private misuse of the pelvis."

That's a great line, Hugo. Conservative though I may be on some personal issues, I'm going to have to steal it; it's too good not to share.

John Doe said...

It's not quite right to say that Huckabee is just "standard corporate GOP fare" on immigration and taxes. He pushed for Arkansas to give in-state college tuition to the children of illegal immigrants, and he opposed a bill that would have required people to prove citizenship before receiving state services (condemning the bill as "race-baiting demagoguery").

According to one article:

"On his signature issue, health care, Huckabee has been credited with innovative public health strategies to curb childhood obesity and reduce the use of tobacco. He was a strong advocate of ARKids First, a program adopted by the legislature that expanded health insurance coverage for children of lower-income parents.

"When it comes to fiscal policy, however, Huckabee is all over the map. He proclaims his fierce opposition to taxing and spending, of course, saying in his official biography that he “pushed through the Arkansas legislature the first major, broad-based tax cuts in state history” and “led efforts to establish a Property Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights.” Yet he has raised taxes several times during his tenure as governor, and once defended himself by saying, “What do our critics want — to rip the feeding tubes out of an 8-year-old or an elderly person on Medicaid?”

Hugo said...

Steal away, Russell -- I am going to use it in my blog this week, when I feel better...

Anonymous said...

Well, you've convinced me as well to be 'not unalterably opposed' to Huckabee. Or, let's say you and Romney drooling all over Ann Coulter last weekend (and vice versa). I think I can understand, in some way, if our people produce conservative politicians. But Ann Coulter conservatives? The salt has definitely lost its savor.

The second tier of the GOP field really needs to rise to the top, because I'm now forced to conclude that the top three are really awful candidates. It's as if Bush split up into three different people, each of which captured one part of how bad a president he is.

Jeremiah J.

Anonymous said...

"if so, so much the worse for the Republican base (though, honestly, I probably couldn't have a much lower opinion of them than I do already). "

Thanks, Russell F. Love you too.

-Adam Greenwood

Russell Arben Fox said...

"Thanks, Russell F. Love you too."

I admit, that bit was mean. But I can't deny that's the way I feel--at least, that's the way I feel towards those who remain deeply committed to President Bush and are looking primarily for a candidate who can move forward with his priorities and policies. Is that an unfair assessment of the "Republican base"? Maybe. Or maybe I'm describing the wrong thing. I honestly wouldn't have ever thought of describing you as one of the "Republican base," Adam; perhaps you'd describe yourself that way, and you surely know yourself better than I know you, so I'll submit to your own self-definition. But I would have labeled you a "social conservative activist," one of those people that the Republican party tries to woo, as opposed to one of those people who carry water for President Bush.

Anonymous said...

I see the distinction you're making, R. Fox. I know quite a few people who could be classified that way. But for me the GOP, and perforce its president, is both an instrument to an end but also itself a locus of loyalties and commitment. You would probably be distressed by the number of people I know for whom this is true.

-Adam Greenwood