Mike Huckabee has been scaring the bejesus out of the Republican establishment with his scorching populist invective. In one recent interview, the former Arkansas governor declared, "I am like a lot of folks who are tired of thinking the Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street." He has denounced "immoral" CEO salaries, and warned, "People will only endure this for so many years before there is a revolt." The terrified anti-tax Club for Growth is waging jihad against Huckabee, and Robert Novak has called him an advocate of "class struggle."
Seeking more insight into Huckabee's apparently Bryan-esque worldview, I turned to his manifesto, From Hope to Higher Ground. In it, he recounts how, during his governorship, low-wage behemoth Wal-Mart hired away many of his top state employees. This is classic populist grist—a huge corporation buys up government employees to ensure docile oversight. Huckabee expressed his reaction to this outrage thusly: "Frankly, I appreciated it when they saw the same talent and ability in those individuals as I discovered when I originally interviewed and hired them." And he proceeded to call Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton—whose salary surely qualified as immoral if anybody's ever did—a "visionary" with "extraordinary integrity." What kind of populist is this guy?
A very confused one, it seems. When Huckabee first declared his intent to run for the presidency, he was generally dismissed as a naive country bumpkin who had no business in a national campaign. His articulate speeches and rapid ascent in the polls have won him a second look, and he is now lauded in such places as The New Yorker, which called him "curiously unthreatening." Alas, when you look closely at Huckabee's platform, it turns out that everybody pretty much had it right the first time around.
At the broadest ideological level, Huckabee is a conservative, happily paying tribute to the genius of the marketplace, the need for self-reliance, and other conservative standbys.
And, yet, his attachment to laissez-faire dogma is so tissue-thin that it can be blown to bits by the slightest brush with actual experience. Often this leads him in humane and intelligent directions, such as when he expanded children's health insurance. But it can also lead him to embrace simplistic statism, such as his crude protectionism and wholesale embrace of agriculture subsidies. ("Imagine the further weakening of America if we were also dependent on foreign sources for our food needs," he warns darkly, as if Al Qaeda will starve us into submission with a naval blockade.)
The reason Huckabee can so easily break from conservative ideology is that he sees everything in personal terms. He chastises conservatives: "For a kid with asthma, who is sitting on the steps of a hospital—let them have an economic policy that doesn't care about that kid." Even though his book is purportedly a public-policy blueprint, it is written in the style of a self-help book. Political manifestos are typically built around a series of policy positions. Huckabee's is built around personal advice. Every chapter ends with recommendations for what the reader can do to make America a better place, most of which have nothing to do with politics. ("Keep receipts for tax-deductible items"; "Attend ethnic festivals"; "Make a to-do list every day.") As grist for a Sunday sermon, this is perfectly nice. As the basis for a presidential campaign, it's appalling.
The most embarrassing aspect of Huckabee's candidacy is his proposal to replace all federal taxes with a national sales tax, or "fair tax." It is difficult for me to find the words to explain just how crazy this idea is. The national sales tax is crazier, by an order of magnitude, than any other crazy idea I've seen at the national level. It's so crazy that even really crazy right-wingers think it's pretty crazy.
The fair tax, as Bruce Bartlett explained in these pages ("Dianetics, The Tax Plan," September 10), was conceived by Scientologists who, angry at an adverse ruling by the Internal Revenue Service, devised a plan they believed would abolish the agency. It has been subsequently embraced by a group of Houston businessmen, who have hired some right-wing activists to promote it.
One aspect of the fair tax is that it would dramatically shift the national tax burden. The richest fifth of taxpayers would see their tax rate fall by about 20 percent, and the bottom 80 percent would all pay more. This is a strange aspiration for somebody like Huckabee who denounces the "growing disparity between the top and the bottom."
But this is actually the sanest aspect of the national sales tax, since at least it serves a cogent, albeit reprehensible, purpose (shifting the tax burden downward). Tax experts believe that a sales tax above around 10 percent is impossible to enforce because the incentives for cheating are so great. The fair tax would impose a 30 percent sales tax—so high that it would no doubt begin a cycle of black-market sales, resulting in escalating rates to capture the lost revenue, resulting in even more cheating, to the point of total collapse. There actually is an efficient and feasible variant of a sales tax—it's called a value-added tax—but fair-tax fans reject this because you'd need an IRS to collect it, and the whole point of their plan is to abolish the IRS. (In reality, the fair tax would require an IRS to enforce it as well. If you're wondering why they still support it, remember: We're talking off-the-grid crazy here.)
So how did Huckabee come to support the fair tax? He was asked about the idea by fair-tax supporters on the campaign trail, bought the book touting it, and was persuaded. Lord help us if he gets his hands on a copy of Das Kapital.
If nothing else, this episode illustrates why Republicans with moderate impulses, like Huckabee, are so politically marginal: Doctrinaire free-marketers firmly control all the think tanks and magazines that feed the GOP. So Republicans who aren't comfortable with the party's plutocratic tilt—Huckabee is one, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson is another—have no intellectual infrastructure to fall back on. They wind up coming up with plans that are either vacuous or wildly counterproductive.
Liberals are warming to Huckabee because, in addition to being a nice guy, he actually seems to believe that his party should do less for the rich and more for the poor. Well, it sure beats mean guys who want their party to do more for the rich and less for the poor. (Hi, Mayor Giuliani.) But it would be even better to find someone who combined those qualities with some idea of what he was talking about.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.