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Interview With Mike Huckabee

By Tom Bevan

(Editor's Note: The following interview took place on March 14 as Governor Huckabee campaigned in New Hampshire.)

RCP: First question: why are you doing this?

HUCKABEE: Because I really believe this county needs leadership that will restore America to its spirit of optimism, bring practical solutions to many of the problems we face, and that can bring people together from not only other parts of the country but from political parties. I think there's a void of that kind of leadership right now in the political structure of Washington.

RCP: And what's the issue that driving you?

HUCKABEE: The single most important issue is restoring America's faith in itself. This country is at its best when it's optimistic and resilient and when it sees that its greatest days are ahead of it, not behind it. We are at our worst when we tend to get filled with fear and anxiety. Fear is a motivator that will motivate people for the short term, but hope is what motivates people for the long term. And we are a nation that thrives best when we have an anticipation of the life that we're going to help build for our kids, as opposed to saying, 'oh boy, it's going to be bad for them.' We don't need to be thinking that way, and that requires leadership.

RCP: Do you think the country is fearful right now?

HUCKABEE: In many ways, I do. September 11 certainly changed the spirit of the country in many ways and gave us a new level of anxiety. There are things we need to be afraid of; we need to be afraid of Islamic fascists; we need to afraid of the internal terrors that we face. The fact that many people will go to work this Friday and get a pink slip and be told that the job they've been working at 20 years won't exist anymore. The fear that people are going to get a phone call that their 8 year old has broken his arm on the playground and they're not sure how they're going to pay the doctor bill and pay the rent on the first of the month.

That's real terror. I mean, people have to understand that there are many forms of terror in the United States. There's a terror that exists because our healthcare system is upside down and we're just so overwhelmed with chronic disease that it's bankrupting us and making us non-competitive. Parents are afraid their kids are going to spend twelve years in schools and still not be prepared to challenge the issues of the world.

So those are real true forms of terror for many American families. What changes that is when we start saying, 'alright, if we know what the problems are, let's start working toward the solutions. Let's quit taking all of this in the realm of political ideology and start bringing a practical way to solve the problem.'

One of the reasons I'm in this is because that's what governors do. We balance budgets. We make things work. We improve schools. We build highways. We work to make sure the healthcare system has improvement, more people can access it, more people can afford it. That's what matters to people.

RCP: How do you feel the campaign is going so far, you've been in the race for what, six weeks officially now?

HUCKABEE: I think it's going very well and I think we're gaining momentum. The issue now is that this is such a long, protracted presidential campaign - unlike any other ever - and people tend to think that when the punditry has declared someone a front runner that makes it so. Right now the race is really sort of being framed by celebrity and money, but if celebrity and money are the only two criteria to be President, then Paris Hilton would qualify as our next President if she could just get to the age of 35. She may never make it to the age of 35 at the rate she's going, I don't know.

But that's not the criteria for being president. It's about leadership, it's about ideas, it's about the capacity to inspire and encourage Americans to do their best, be their best, and to solve the problems that people really feel like are in their way.

RCP: Let's talk about specific issues, starting with Iraq. You support the surge, correct?

HUCKABEE: I support the president's right as Commander-in-Chief to make the decisions that he feels like will work and General Petraeus is the person in whom he has placed his trust and the Senate has given unanimous confirmation to him. I don't know if it's going to work, but let's hope it does. I have to respect that he's looking at information that I don't have and he's based this decision on those intelligence reports and the reports that he's getting from his generals in the field.

I always have to express, and I will today, some concerns that we are overextending our National Guard and Reserve forces and we're asking so much of them that I fear we're going to stress them to the point of really breaking the system. These are supposed to be citizen-soldiers and in many cases they're now going for long and extended and repeated deployments. That is a concern to me.

But some positive things are happening. This weekend when 13 nations gathered in Baghdad to talk about involvement of other nations. I've been saying for months that what has to happen is a greater sense of participation of the other nations in that neighborhood, and that's starting to happen.

RCP: So do you think it was the right decision? Or are you not willing to make that judgment from where you sit right now?

HUCKABEE: It's not that I'm unwilling; it's that I don't have the same level of information. I just have to respect that as the Commander-in-Chief he has the right to make that decision. I have respect for him in having done so knowing that it was not necessarily going to be popular. But I also understand that it had better work, because if it doesn't then I think he adds more fuel to his critics and to those who call for a completely opposite approach.

The reality is that we never entered this engagement in Iraq with the level of resources that the Department of Defense said we needed in order to really bring stability there. I think that is a concern. My concern is that if you're going to do this we need to do it with all the resources possible. Here's a concern: we spend 3.8% of GDP right now on defense. That is less than any time since the end of the Cold War in terms of a percentage of spending. We've never spent that small amount of our GDP during a shooting war. You have to wonder, are we trying to do too much with too little? And that's a challenge.

RCP: Are you suggesting we spend more on defense? President Huckabee would increase our defense spending?

HUCKABEE: I'd see what our needs were. One of the issues we've got to face is whether or not we've allocated enough resources for what we intend to do. We've got to have a strong military, there's no doubt about that. But we have to use our military very sparingly, and one of the concerns I do have is that we're fighting a very unconventional war. It is not a traditional war in the sense that we're fighting an army, we're not fighting a nation, we're not fighting an armed force that has uniforms and an insignia and a battle flag. We're fighting an ideology. And it exists in cells throughout many, many different nations. It doesn't seem that you're going to win an unconventional war by deploying a conventional army in a conventional manner. So I think there's got to be some redefinition of the strategy and the picture.

The second thing, when I was a college freshman I had a professor that used to tell us, "don't use all your water on too small a fire." His point was, to apply it to today, we have to be careful that we don't use all the resources that we have just in Iraq because we've got Iran, North Korea, we have other hot spots in the world that could break out. If we're in such a position that we have completed extended ourselves to the point where we have no more resources to give, that puts us in a rather vulnerable position.

RCP: How do you feel about the way the debate on Iraq is playing out in Congress? Vice President Cheney said last week they're undermining the administration and the troops in Iraq. Do you support that view?

HUCKABEE: A good honest debate is a healthy thing, especially when it comes to something as defining as a war. I don't have a problem with people discussing either the merits or the method. But it needs to be an honest debate, and when the Democrats say they're against it but they don't have an alternative plan, or when they want to play games with the process rather than with the ultimate product of how we're fighting the war.

I think it's completely disingenuous for them to say to General Petraeus "we give you a unanimous consent to go do your job, oh by the way, even though we consent and confirm you for this position we don't think your method will work." That's schizophrenic. How can you say we're going to send you to do a job we don't think is going to be effective? Stand up and say... if you don't think it's going to be effective then don't confirm him, but don't send him over there with your confidence and then turn around and say to the cameras "we don't think this thing is going to work." That's what I have a problem with.

RCP: How concerned are you about Iraq and how it's going to affect the Republican race for the Presidency in 2008?

HUCKABEE: It will be a huge issue. But none of us know how much of an issue it will be a year from now, because everything could change. Things could get better, things could get worse. I think what we have to do is to remember that no president is elected based on the issues of yesterday, or even today. Presidents are elected on the basis of their character and their judgment, so that when the crisis comes that they will face that they're going to deal with it based on an operating system that is within them.

This is, to me, one of the dichotomies of where the American people get it and some of the punditry does not. Pundits tend to think it's what you know, in other words it's your "database" that's incredibly important, and as president they want to peer into your database and see what they can find.

The American people tend to want to look at your operating system. They want to find out what processes will you use to take the data and make a decision. That's the smart move, because when it comes down to it no president has all the data at his fingertips or in his head, because the issues that you campaign on may change the day you get elected.

George Bush didn't campaign on "if you elect me I'm going to be a great president to confront terrorism and launch a war in the Middle East" because nobody was thinking about it in the year 2000. But it became the defining issue of his presidency.

RCP: So what's the best example you can provide of your operating system, of your judgment in terms of handling a crisis?

HUCKABEE: First of all I can tell you if you look at my record for 10 ½ years as Governor you'd see a consistency of what I'd call true problem solving, anticipating what issues are going to be and trying to, as Wayne Gretzsky would say, skate toward the puck before it's there.

In terms of crisis, whether it's massive tornadoes that ripped 250 miles of territory off the Arkansas landscape, or dealing with 75,000 evacuees that poured into our state after Hurricane Katrina and the fact that while FEMA was in complete meltdown we increased our state's population 3% in 5 days with people who had literally nothing but a plastic garbage sack with maybe a change of clothes -and some of them didn't even have that - and they came in with 5 days of muddy water on their bodies and nothing else, not even a photo ID. We were able to take those people and process them and unlike other parts of the country where it was a chaotic disaster, we managed that crisis in our own state because we took all the resources that could be marshaled, we brought them together, we innovated and we didn't wait on the federal government to give us permission to help people.

I think it's that kind of leadership America looks for, whether it's the aftermath of a hurricane or whether it's confronting the realities of a terrorist attack.

RCP: Let's switch gears to taxes. You signed the Club For Growth no tax pledge recently, and they put out a press release saying something to the effect of "Huckabee Knuckles Under" though I read that you said you were happy to sign the pledge and that this was something you believed in. In a recent interview with George Stephanopoulos, however, he asked you about signing the Club for Growth pledge and you were non committal. When did you change your mind, what changed your mind?

HUCKABEE: The key thing was, I remember it was a pledge states were confronted with and as a governor it was going to be very difficult for me to sign a pledge as absolute as it was because as a governor I had to balance a budget; I couldn't print money, I couldn't borrow money, I could go to jail for not balancing a budget. Also you're under very different constraints; you have to spend certain things in a state government because you have court orders to educate people, as we did in Arkansas, you have judicial mandates to incarcerate and deal with people in your prison system; you also have federal mandates on programs like Medicaid that are just a runaway cost and it's an entitlement therefore you don't have the option of spending or not spending, you have to do it. It's very difficult to be an absolutist at that level, even though I cut taxes 90 times in Arkansas.

The federal pledge is pretty simple; it just says you're not going to raise the marginal tax rates. Well, I wouldn't want to do that, because I think the marginal tax rates are already too high. I supported the Bush tax cuts when no other active presidential candidate, as far as I know, was doing so back when he first proposed them. And I've been consistent with that, it's not that I'm a latecomer to the federal issue of taxation. I've supported cuts in capital gains, I did it in Arkansas, supported it at the federal level.

So when I really read the pledge and what it was, I said, "I already believe this, I've already been on record for this. This is not difficult."

RCP: Do you have a specific tax proposal out yet? Are you in favor of a flat tax? Reducing rates further? Simplifying the system?

HUCKABEE: I would favor a flat tax. I know it's complicated to get there, but the system we have is just archaic and virtually out of control. To me there are four F's in a good tax system: it ought to be flatter, fairer, finite and family friendly.

Flatter means that there is a proportionate sense of sharing the burden, so everybody has skin in the game. Fairer means that there's not only equitable distribution but it does not penalize productivity and subsidize irresponsibility, which to me is a good tenant of government. Family friendly simply means that there is a sense in which you encourage a family unit, you encourage marriage, which is critical, you encourage stable homes and fatherhood, you don't create tax policies that would discourage having children but rather would encourage having children and raising them in your homes and families. Finite is simply that you recognize there is just a limit to how much you can take out of people's pockets and how much you can take out of the private sector and still have a thriving economy and create jobs.

RCP: Let's switch gears again to immigration. I believe you said when President Bush sent 6,000 National Guard troops to the border that you supported that decision but that "militarizing" the border was not the answer. In the interview earlier today, you said that we have to secure our border. If securing our borders is first and foremost, how do we go about getting control of the border?

HUCKABEE: A physical border coupled with an electronic border, to me, is paramount. It's essential. And it's going to be expensive but it's probably less expensive than to continue to do what we're doing now which is to leave these borders open with no idea of who's coming and where they are and what they're doing.

I've never really worried about someone slipping across the border to pluck chickens or pick tomatoes or make beds, but it does worry me that somebody could also slip across the border with a shoulder fired missile launcher. That's pretty darn serious and we've just left ourselves vulnerable for that.

And it's not just the Mexican border; we've got to be just as concerned about the Canadian border. And it's not a matter of it being an insult to these other countries; it's to protect them as much as it is us, from people who traverse those borders without any real sense of authority. That's critical, and it's important to everyone.

When I've said we shouldn't militarize the borders, the purpose of the military is to fight wars; it's not to provide police action. What I'd rather see us do is to have border security that is run by an entity that is geared toward just that, it's the role of security and it's a police action, not a military action. We're not fighting Mexico, we're not fighting Canada. It's not a war. We're not putting that military border up. It's a civilian border. Just like when I go to the airport it's a civilian function of the TSA to check me out and to make sure that I am who I say I am and that I'm going where I say I'm going. That's why they check my boarding pass and my photo ID to make sure that I'm not bringing something on that could be harmful, so that's why I go through all that X-ray and patting down process.

In the same way, we need to know that a person coming across the border is not bringing something harmful, whether that's a weapon or a communicable disease. We need to know that. It should be conducted in a civilized and civilian manner.

RCP: Are you in favor of the fence?

HUCKABEE: I am. Again, whether it's electronic or physical, in some places electronic may be more practical than a physical one, but the border ought to be secure. I don't see why that's controversial to some people, they say that it is. The reason I say, "why should it be?" is because if you go to any high rise in Manhattan and there are physical barriers between the sidewalk and getting up to the fourteenth floor. Go to any airport and there are many barriers between getting out of your car and getting on that airplane. You can't even go to the stadium without having some barriers and borders. We're used to that, it's part of our system, we understand it. And it's not all related to terrorism, some of it is related just to an orderly process so six people aren't all trying to sit in the same seat.

I don't think there is anything that is unfair, unkind, or uncivil about that. I think, in fact, that it's being uncivil to not have some understanding of who's coming, where they're going, what they're going to do, and how they're going to be functioning.

RCP: So what's the other half to the Huckabee immigration plan?

HUCKABEE: The other half is to make sure that on this side of the border we have a manner in which we can actually process people who do want to cross the border and, frankly, that we need in our economy to do jobs that are going unfilled because nobody here wants to do them.

You know, when people say, "they're taking our jobs" - I used to hear that as Governor - and I started asking this question, "can you name me any person, give me their name, who can't get a job plucking a chicken or picking a tomato or tarring a roof that would like to do that work? In fact, I won't ask, I'll challenge you: give me their name and their phone number by five this afternoon and by eight o'clock tomorrow morning I can have them at work."

And I'd hear "well, it's a lot of people," and I said, "no, no, don't tell me it's a lot of people, don't tell me you heard, or that your friends have said, or that you have this uncle. Tell me their names. Take a few hours. Go get them. Give me their names."

I never, ever, had a person who could come up with the name of a person who could not get a job because an illegal immigrant had stepped in front of them because it was either a job that person didn't want to do or didn't exist. I'm not saying there aren't folks out there like that, but so much of it was more about emotion than it was about the reality of saying "gee, I can't get a job because somebody was in front of me."

RCP: So you're essentially supportive of the Bush administration's position.

HUCKABEE: I don't want to have an amnesty program. You can't let people break a law and say "hey we're going to look the other way, don't worry about it, we're going to let you in, no problem." People have to make restitution, there's got to be a penalty paid for the crime committed. But it ought to fit the crime; you don't put somebody in jail for ten years because they came across the border to make a living.

You make them pay something, you make them go through a process, you may put them in the back of the line for the process, but you create a process that's realistic. You don't say the back of the line starts and for the next 12 years you're going to be filling out paperwork.

What you do say is you're going to pay the fine, we're going to have a system that can be done in an orderly fashion, and you'll be able to be legal but we're not going to let you off scot free. That's important.

RCP: Do you think the Senate is getting it right or is going to come up with something that addresses all these issues and would be something you could support?

HUCKABEE: I hope so. We've allowed this issue to generate a lot more heat than light. My classic statement and I really believe this: people are all over the board on this issue, it is an important issue and it is one we have to resolve. But I hope everyone backs off their emotions long enough to stop and say when I get on my kneed tonight before I go to bed, I need to thank God I'm in a country people are trying to break into and not a country people are trying to break out of.

And I do remind myself that I should be flattered I live in this nation, I should be overwhelmed with gratitude that I am in a country that for many people, not just in Mexico but across the world, the greatest hope they have is to get to this country and put their feet on our soil because they think this is where opportunity and hope exist. That's a great thing. That's a good thing.

RCP: Last question: do you consider yourself a spontaneous person?

HUCKABEE: Very.

RCP: What's the most spontaneous thing you've ever done?

HUCKABEE: Oh. I'm not a reckless person, in the sense that I wouldn't do something that's reckless or dangerous, because I'm a pretty careful person. For example, I don't snow ski. I did it once and I promised God I'd never do it again if I lived through it.

So I'm not a reckless person. That spontaneity is not what I mean. I'm more spontaneous when it comes to expressing myself. I know what I believe. I have deep convictions. I don't have to sit around and say, "ok, let me think how I answer this because I need to be so afraid that it's what they want to hear." I know what I believe and I'm comfortable in that conviction, so I'm going to express it spontaneously. Frankly, sometimes that gets me in trouble. Probably my greatest vulnerability is that I tend to speak freely.

RCP: Give me an example of when it's gotten you into trouble.

HUCKABEE: Oh, I remember on the Don Imus show one time I made a comment, because we were having election problems in Arkansas. We had counties where more people voted than were even registered. We had a guy that was caught on his kitchen table filling out 125 different ballots. He was actually an elected city council member and he got caught red handed in election fraud, and I made the comment - and it was on Don Imus for heaven's sake, it's a comedy show - I said something about sometimes our elections are like a Banana Republic. So people accused me of saying Arkansas was a Banana Republic, which I never said.

So I challenged the critics who went nuts over it and I said, "what do you say about the election fraud issues? How can you tell me that it's okay when more people can vote than are registered? How do you figure a guy votes 125 ballots? How do you figure some elections are going one way until midnight and suddenly some ballots appear out of nowhere?" That's the kind of thing I'm talking about.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com

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