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Huckabee's Counterproductive Sweet Talk

By Dick Armey

With a definitive win in last week's Iowa caucus, Mike Huckabee talked himself into the frontrunner position for the Republican presidential nomination. His folksy demeanor and populist promises are central to his appeal, but they mask a strategy designed to divide the conservative movement. If the Republican party chooses to follow Huckabee's lead, it will allow political sweet talk to destroy its greatest electoral and policy-making advantage: the GOP's traditional political consensus built around limiting the size and scope of government.

Mike Huckabee abandoned conservative governance long ago. As governor of Arkansas from 1996-2007, his record on economic issues was long and dismal. He raised the sales tax and passed a tax on gasoline, increasing the state's overall average tax burden by almost 50 percent. Spending shot up more than 65 percent under his leadership. In the current campaign, he supports expensive, restrictive energy legislation, a misguided new national sales tax, and nanny-state notions like a federal smoking ban.

By now, these facts are well known. Fiscal conservatives have spilled gallons of ink decrying his record, and for good reason. Yet the social conservatives who support him should be concerned as well, for Huckabee undermines the GOP's longstanding unity between its traditional and economic wings, a coalition built to serve the goals of social as well fiscal conservatives.

This coalition, solidified in the Reagan years, rests on the principle that freedom--individual and economic--is not in conflict with virtue, but rather is the key to it. Social conservatives are served by promoting economic freedom, and vice-versa. Moreover, the alignment of these interests is the foundation for the GOP's electoral successes, no small thing in the realm of politics. The enthusiasm for Huckabee from the party's socially conservative wing is not just misplaced; it's counterproductive.

Indeed, Huckabee explicitly seems to want to destroy the longstanding partnership that has defined the Right. Ed Rollins, Huckabee's campaign manager, recently dismissed the Reagan coalition as "gone," saying "it doesn't mean a whole lot to people anymore." That's quite the claim, but perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise. Huckabee has every incentive to distance himself from the GOP coalition; his nomination rests on its demise.

With his jokes and folksy patter, he presents himself as affable and friendly, but only by sowing discontent and disunity can he hope to split off enough of the party's base to win the nomination. Yes, despite the sunny rhetoric, Huckabee's act is little more than another strategic political ploy.

Thus, he has worked to make his small-minded populism a credit by pitting his socially conservative supporters against the GOP's business wing. One of his favorite lines is that he represents the interests of "Main Street, not Wall Street." But this assumes that the interests of the two are not in alignment, that somehow, one group can only gain at the expense of the other - never mind that the jobs and livelihoods of America's workers and small towns are tied inexorably with the larger economy. It's a dark form of class warfare shrewdly masked by his sunny chatter.

Of course, his genial demeanor and willingness to overlook both principle and fact is indicative of a distinct and disturbing trend in American politics. Huckabee seemed to come from nowhere in the race, but he is not just a lonely, surprise candidate, but a symbol of the new wave of feel-good conservatism, which seeks not to deal in policy that works so much as policy and rhetoric that provide emotional gratification.

Huckabee comes off as the self-esteem candidate, in which merely feeling good is the core of the message. He's not the only Republican making a practice of peddling cotton-candy bromides. As FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe recently pointed out, former Bush speechwriter and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson has been pushing a similarly foolish agenda: inspiring, heartfelt--and utterly ineffective.

More than ever, we need to remember that freedom, prosperity, and opportunity are at the center of the limited government vision for America. Ours is an inherently compassionate and positive agenda, and it would be better if more candidates adopted Huckabee's accessible, upbeat tone. But sunshine rhetoric in the service of liberal fantasies is a political and policy dead end. Allowing Mike Huckabee to become the face of conservatism would trade unity and principle for an ill-advised romance with a flighty, flaky new brand of politics.

Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey is chairman of FreedomWorks in Washington, D.C.

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