A few days before Mike Huckabee announced that he wasn’t running for president, I had lunch with a friend in Philadelphia, a leading fiscal conservative and business leader. He told me, “If Romney wins the Republican nomination, I’m staying home in November. If Huckabee wins, I’m voting for Obama.”
How did such a gulf arise between the would-have-been Republican front-runner and the keepers of Goldwater’s flame (who also just happen to be the gatekeepers to a great deal of any successful candidate’s money — money Huckabee received none of in 2008)?
You see, I worked for Mike Huckabee once, back when he was new in the governor’s office. I remember a young leader brimming with free-market ideas. One of the first tasks he gave me was to investigate whether there might be a way to create meaningful health savings accounts on the state level in Arkansas. His eyes would light up when he spoke of such things: he would quote Ronald Reagan and Phyllis Schlafly and spell out a vision for transformational change.
And he meant it. It was a joy to work for him.
Today, fiscal conservatives mostly know Mike Huckabee as that former preacher who coined the term “Club for Greed” to deride great men like Wall Street Journal editor Stephen Moore and U.S. Senator Pat Toomey. A YouTube video circulates showing him begging a Democrat-led state house for any and all possible tax increases, to pay for some court-mandated boondoggle he’d opposed.
The road from the one to the other is littered with mistakes.
The first of these was from the Cato Institute. In 2002, Washington’s top libertarian think tank released a report card on America’s governors in which it gave an infuriated Mike Huckabee a “C,” based on a range of tax and fiscal policies which had indeed become law on his watch. The governor was even less pleased as his 2004 grade came in at a “D,” and as he graduated in 2006 — just before announcing for president — with an “F.” To add insult to injury, Cato found Huckabee to be dead last among all 50 governors (not just Republicans) when it came to taxes; or as the Club for Growth helpfully pointed out on its blog, “To put this in perspective, Huckabee had a worse score than Ohio Governor Bob Taft, normally considered the worst governor in the country.”
The second mistake was the Club for Growth’s. Under both Moore and Toomey, the Club mercilessly pilloried Huckabee on the basis of Cato’s analysis and their own similar conclusions. And again, based on Arkansas law — enacted on Huckabee’s watch — they were entirely correct to do so.
So if they were correct, why were these mistakes? Because they were blaming the wrong guy.
However superficially similar, Arkansas was not like the other states being ranked. In the ten and a half years he was governor, Mike Huckabee’s Republicans never controlled even one-third of one house of his state legislature: comparing Arkansas to, say, Jeb Bush’s Florida was simply apples and oranges. And it wouldn’t have mattered if they had: in Arkansas, the governor’s veto may be overridden by a 51% majority, not the normal two-thirds. He was a lame duck on his first day.
What neither Cato nor the Club for Growth ever understood was that it was a miracle worthy of prophets and apostles, not mere pastors like Huckabee, that any good legislation ever came out of Little Rock at all. Huckabee presided from his first day to his last over a good ole boy legislature dominated by the cronies of former Governor and President Bill Clinton and former Governor and inmate Jim Guy Tucker. He pried a lot out of it too, including the first broad-based tax cut in 162 years of state history, real welfare reform that reduced Arkansas’ welfare rolls by 52% in just 18 months, and significant expansions in school choice.
Unfortunately, if the fiscal conservative establishment misunderstood him, the fault lies squarely with Huckabee himself. It is this third mistake that is the greatest, and the most unnecessary.
Mike Huckabee did not respond to criticism with grace, nor did he sit down with Moore and Toomey to come to a meeting of the minds. Indeed, rather than running against the Democrats in Little Rock (and by extension, the ones in D.C.) who’d held him back, Huckabee lashed out, first at Cato, then at the “Club for Greed,” and eventually at anyone who dared question either his conservatism or his record. In so doing, he burned a lot of bridges with a lot of should-have-been friends. It was out of character for him, it detracted from his strengths, and above all, it was ineffective.
Would he have changed course this time? Would he have put his record in perspective? Would he have rightly said, “Look at what I was able to achieve almost completely alone; now imagine what I’ll be able to do for you in Washington with a Republican House and Senate at my side?”
We won’t know in 2012. But one can hope that between now and whenever he might run again, Mike Huckabee, the best retail politician of our time except Bill Clinton, might find that less defensive, more persuasive voice; and in shedding the defense of things which were never within his control to begin with, he might just rediscover that youthful fiscal visionary within himself whom I was once so proud to serve.
Rod D. Martin, founder of The Vanguard Project, is a leading futurist, technology entrepreneur and conservative activist from Destin, Florida. He was part of PayPal.com’s pre-IPO startup team, serving as special counsel to founder and CEO Peter Thiel, and also served as policy director to former Governor Mike Huckabee. He is President of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies (NFRA), a member of the Council for National Policy, and serves on numerous nonprofit and for-profit boards.