It's happening again. They're back, the out-of-state reporters, the magazine writers, the blow-dried television types who want to know who this guy is, this presidential candidate out of Hope, Ark., of all places.
This year the subject of all this intense interest is one Michael Dale Huckabee, who must be tearing 'em up because he's started to catch it from all those frontrunners in the Republican primaries who aren't frontrunners any more, largely thanks to him. Which means he's going to be questioned and investigated, poked and prodded, exposed and provoked by a very free press. Which is how the system is supposed to work, however irritating the Frontrunner of the Moment may find it.
By now the Huck's dramatic rise in the polls has attracted the interest of the kind of always with-it, thoroughly cosmopolitan TV news producer who wouldn't know an evangelical from a fundamentalist. (An evangelical Christian basically believes the same things as a fundamentalist one, only he ain't mad about it.) Brother Huckabee is of the evangelical persuasion unless you happen to catch him on a bad day, but he hasn't had many of those lately on the campaign trail.
The Huck is not just a highly effective preacher but populist; he has a knack for reducing complex issues to simple terms, which has made him a fast-rising presidential candidate. How that talent would serve him as president is something else. To mention a couple of his not-so-small problems: His experience in foreign policy is a vacuum, his single speech about it vacuous. And his recent drift toward protectionism is more a tribute to his populist and political instincts than to his knowledge of economics. He has a feel for where the crowd is heading this election year, and seems all too eager to get ahead of it. That may be how to win elections, but is it a good way to govern?
This year's Man from Hope retains the wide streak of vulgarity that makes him and Don Imus such good buddies and which seems to appeal to a lot of voters. Call it the common touch. What ever happened to the Mike Huckabee who used to have such a thin-skinned, petty streak when criticized? It's remarkable, the way the touchy old Mike Huckabee we knew here in Arkansas has managed to rise above the slings and arrows he used to over-react to. His self-discipline on the presidential campaign trail has been impressive. So far. I figure it'll break only if he starts slipping in the polls.
There's a species of Republican true believers right here in Arkansas who've always suspected his bonafides as an honest-to-goodness fiscal conservative and social reactionary. They're largely to be found up in the hills, which tend to be Republican territory in any Southern state because of complicated historical, ethnic, economic and geological reasons having to do with soil, slavery and the plantation system. Back when he was a feisty, hefty pol instead of a walking no, running advertisement for weight loss, Brother Huckabee used to fondly refer to such critics as Shi'ite Republicans.
Much the same anti-Huckabee line is now being repeated and amplified by the high-powered Club for Growth, which has launched an all-out effort to dub the Huck just another tax-and-spender. To hear the bean-counters in The Club tell it in their videos, television commercials, YouTube potshots and general frontal assault, Mike Huckabee "spends money like a drunken sailor." (The Club's turns of phrase aren't very original. Its specialty is numbers, not metaphors.)
This kind of criticism can be as powerful as any set of statistics wrenched from the context that produced them. The Club has a point but only on paper. When you compare the dramatic tax cuts enacted early in the Huckabee administration here in Arkansas with the later tax increases, you come up with some $500 million in additional taxes. An impressive amount.
But on closer examination, it turns out that some $400 million, or four-fifths of the total, went to carry out the state Supreme Court's order in the Lake View case and keep Arkansas' schools constitutional. Mike Huckabee had little choice in the matter if he was going to obey the law. Some did urge him to defy the state's highest court, but this isn't Orval Faubus' Arkansas any more.
If you're looking for Mike Huckabee at his best, there are times when he's been magnificent, as when he steered Arkansas through his first strange day as governor when his disgraced and convicted predecessor refused to leave office as he'd promised. The impasse went on for most of a long, harrowing, painful and embarrassing afternoon. Throughout, the rightful governor stayed calm and determined, and, once the crisis had passed, even showed charity toward the confused, recalcitrant man who'd blocked his way. Talk about a bridge over troubled waters.
But his best moment came when Gov. Huckabee personally welcomed the Little Rock Nine to Central High School 40 years after they'd been denied entrance by Orval Faubus, noting that throughout the years of debate and division and historical revision since, "we in Arkansas have wandered around in ambiguity, all kinds of explanations and justifications. And I think today we come to say once and for all what happened here 40 years ago was simply wrong. It was simply evil, and we renounce it."
The air in this state suddenly shone clearer after that. Clear as atonement and redemption. Others spoke on that occasion. Mike Huckabee transformed it into a kind of covenant with a better future.
We've learned a thing or two since 1957, thank goodness. And as governor, Mike Huckabee did more to improve education than pour money into it; he's been interested in improving outcomes, not just raising inputs.
There were other tax increases during Mike Huckabee's more than a decade as governor. But should he have left the state's highways in the miserable condition in which he found them, rather than press for a long overdue bond issue? Should he have left the state's poorest children without health insurance, ignoring the needs of the least of these? Should he have frittered away the state's tobacco settlement instead of reserving it for an ambitious public health program? Most of those higher fees and taxes were justified by either pressing necessity or a prudent investment in the state's future. He left Arkansas a healthier, wealthier state economically, educationally, physically.
To some of us, what the Club for Growth considers Mike Huckabee's great failures sound more like a list of his great successes. When it came to economic policy, he was less interested in griping about problems than solving them.
The Huck doubtless has his failings as a policymaker. For example, he's got a weakness for zany, untested schemes like the national sales tax he's now supporting as a substitute for the income tax. Then there's the draconian approach he's started to flirt with when it comes to illegal immigration. He must know that, however popular such an approach may be among Republican voters in the presidential primaries, it isn't just unenforceable but belies every humane, realistic, Christian thing he's long said about this vexing problem. Presidential politics can be bad for the character.
As for his sad part in the parole of Wayne DuMond, a murderer and rapist who was freed to kill and terrorize again, Mike Huckabee should have donned sackcloth and ashes and had done with it instead of talking about the role others played in that awful train of events. He should have accepted responsibility for it, as he did, and just stopped there.
But his usual, practical approach to pressing problems isn't anything Mike Huckabee need be ashamed of. Quite the contrary. If he's failed the Club for Growth's litmus test, he didn't fail his state.