Friday, November 30, 2001
The political genius of Mike Huckabee
ONCE AGAIN we come to understand why Mike Huckabee is the
most unbeatable politician in the state. It's because the columnists and
analysts and legislators and poli-sci types don't elect a governor, the people
do. And this governor has a way of reaching them.
When it comes to the continual Mike Huckabee Show, we may
groan or applaud his lines, we may be moved or just leave the theater, but we
will all be affected. One way or the other. Because the man is impossible to
ignore. Because this governor, preacher and entertainer understands that a
great politician must also be a great actor. Not in the sense of being false
to himself, but in bringing out a truth the rest of us can see, even feel. He
is, in a word, a showman.
Sometimes this governor moves beyond both tragedy and
comedy, and elevates the whole state. One remembers--how could anybody
forget?--his first day in office, when he was called on to pry a felon and
prima donna out of the governor's chair just to begin his administration. He
handled the day-long job with balance, humor and determination. And even with
human sympathy for his poor, disgraced predecessor, who was now disgracing
himself one last time.
Then there were the words of confession and new resolution
that he spoke on the 40th anniversary of the Central High Crisis, redeeming us
all. That he put all the other speakers in the shade was only incidental; at
that moment he had gone beyond rhetorical competition into the things that
matter: right and wrong, history and forgiveness.
MIKE HUCKABEE can do comedy, too--which is a lot harder than
tragedy. Sometimes he falls on his face, as when he let that reference to
Arkansas as a banana republic slip. Nothing so offends residents of a banana
republic as being told so. And who can deny that, at least on the
unforgettable day Arkansas had two governors jostling for the same chair, that
our state government bore a certain resemblance to a Central American junta?
And do you remember how we had to renew our car tags in the
pre-Huckabee era? All the paperwork involved would have done justice to some
comic-opera republica. But we don't like our governors to say so, and
Mike Huckabee's comment on Don Imus flopped back home. Indeed, it backfired.
Nobody dared laugh. Not even Mike Huckabee can conquer the fabled Arkansas
But the show must go on, and this week the Guv was back
having some fun with his usual, oh-so-serious critics. After all, how do you not
smile when our legislators' first reaction to an economy that's plunging
into recession, with industries closing and people losing their jobs, is to
tax them more?
There's a certain kind of politician who's so determined to
save the state's budget that he'll sacrifice the state. Its people, its
economy, what does all that matter compared to making sure every state agency
has as much money to spend as it did in the good times?
All our leaders have to do, you see, is raise taxes. The
less income people and businesses have, the
more they should pay! The sobersided politicians who put forth this
theory seem to have no idea how ludicrous they sound. How make it clear?
That's where comedy comes in. It can make a point no amount
of Economics 101 can. And so the irrepressible Guv took to the boards once
again, this time before the Arkansas Farm Bureau. These people want to pay
more taxes? Fine, said our stand-up governor. And he rolled out his
newest creation, the Tax Me More Fund.
(P.O. Box 8054. Little Rock, AR 72203) Anybody who thinks taxes aren't high
enough can contribute. What a grand opportunity, as Groucho would say.
Strangely enough, there was no rush to fill the state's
coffers. Indeed, the politicians who'd been pushing higher taxes just days ago
didn't seem to get the joke. (They never do.) They accused the Guv of
clowning, as if comedy were a low thing. Just ask any actor how hard it is.
Mel Brooks is a clown, but he's also a genius at showing us our little
hypocrisies, and our overweening pomposities. Which is pretty much what the
governor succeeded in doing, to judge by the huffy reactions he got.
Here is John A. Riggs IV, state senator and irate critic
from Little Rock, who, when he gets in a huff, sounds like a man unused to
being contradicted: "Obviously it's a grandstand act and what would you
expect of somebody who takes on clownish behavior, and, unfortunately, this is
what we've come to expect from this particular governor." The senator
sounded almost nostalgic for Jim Guy Tucker.
Mike Beebe, the state senator who wants to be attorney
general, can take a joke. Asked about the governor's
Tax Me More Fund, he replied: "I assume he was
kidding." But other legislators remained deadpan. "He could have
responded more appropriately,"
said John Brown, minority leader of the state Senate. Senator Brown could
never be accused of a sense of humor.
Besides, Senator Brown doesn't approve of letting the public
in on so public a piece of business as taxation. "I think we could have
had a discussion behind closed doors with key leadership," he explained,
"but I think that cow's probably out of the barn." Cow? Isn't
it the horse that's out after the barn door is closed? You'd think that, when
our starchier leaders use a country metaphor, they'd at least trouble to get
the farm animal right.
THEN THERE was Shane Broadway, the youngest speaker of the
House with the oldest ideas, namely Tax and
Spend. Now that he's considering a run for governor himself, he's not about to
come out for higher taxes. So he has no problem with the
Tax Me More Fund, said young Broadway, discussing
it the way a psychiatrist would analyze a joke: humorlessly. Speaker Broadway
added that the governor ought to be more
serious, which for some reason reminded us of Republicans of another era who
resented FDR because he was such a happy warrior. Not only were they not
amused, they left the impression they couldn't be amused. Which is no
way to be a successful politician in a country as rollicking as this one.
The Guv's performance before the Farm Bureau, complete with
slide show, was the best we've seen since Jim McDougal used to hold court at
the old Legacy Hotel, which was the even older Sam Peck, back when Whitewater
was the best show in town.
This governor may have a hit or a flop on his hands from
time to time, but he's always on stage. He takes risks. As great actors and
great politicians do. If there is a secret to his political genius--and his
ratings in the polls leave no doubt about that genius--maybe it's that he's
pretty much unembarrassable. He's the sort of governor who would start a
Tax Me More Fund, just
to watch his critics rush not to contribute. Mike Huckabee has made his point
and, if the politicians don't get it, we have an idea the people do.
Huckabee: Don't brood, say, 'Tax Me'
By Michael Rowett, Democrat-Gazette Staff
Thursday, November 29, 2001
Gov. Mike Huckabee on Wednesday mocked lawmakers who have
suggested considering tax increases to
offset a budgetary retreat by his administration. Anyone who wants to pay
more can send a check to a new state Tax
Me More Fund, he said.
Speaking to the Arkansas Farm Bureau convention in Little
Rock, Huckabee challenged such lawmakers to open their checkbooks and send
money to the fund.
The audience initially laughed at the
"I'm as serious as I can be," Huckabee said.
"It's put-up-or-shut-up time. Either put up the money, write the check
and let us see you're serious or quit telling
me Arkansans want their taxes raised. Because I'm convinced that
Arkansans would say today, 'My taxes are high enough.' "
For those who believe that
tax increases provide the answer -- "the liberal
tax-and-spenders," Huckabee called them in an interview after his
speech -- the state Department of Finance and Administration at the governor's
behest set up the Tax Me More Fund.
Its address is P.O. Box 8054, Little Rock, Ark. 72203.
Later Wednesday the governor's office issued a news release
announcing the account. "There's nothing in the law that prohibits those
who believe they aren't paying enough in taxes from writing a check to the
state of Arkansas," the release said. "Maybe this will make them
Money sent in will be used to offset $303 million in state
general revenue cuts that his administration has announced for this and the
next state fiscal year.
Huckabee said in an interview that he won't send a check.
"It's just not where I feel like I need to pay a whole lot
more than I'm already paying," he said.
Among lawmakers who say tax
increases should at least be considered, including some of Huckabee's fellow
Republicans, reaction to the governor's pronouncements ranged from incredulity
"Obviously, it's a grandstand act and what you would
expect of somebody who takes on clownish behavior, and, unfortunately, this is
what we've come to expect from this particular governor," said Senate
Majority Leader John Riggs, D-Little Rock. "You would hope Arkansas could
have a strong leader and a strong CEO, but that's not what we decided to elect
when the governor got elected."
"I assume he was kidding," Senate President Pro
Tempore Mike Beebe, D-Searcy, said when asked to comment on the
Tax Me More Fund. When assured that Huckabee was
serious, Beebe, who is running for attorney general next year, said he would
have to speak personally to Huckabee before commenting about the
Senate Minority Leader John Brown, R-Siloam Springs, said
Huckabee apparently cares more about
scoring political points for the 2002 re-election campaign than engaging in
serious discussion about budget issues. "He could have responded
more appropriately," Brown said. "I wanted to encourage a
more public debate, and not one just focused on him."
House Speaker Shane Broadway, D-Bryant, who is considering
an electoral challenge to Huckabee next year, said he "has no fault"
with the Tax Me More Fund
because some Arkansans likely will donate to it. But he said the governor owes
Arkansans more serious, less
Huckabee said those affected or potentially affected by the
state budget cuts could encourage people to send money to the
Tax Me More Fund or trust his administration to focus
the cuts on administration rather than on direct services.
"Pray a little more,
work a little harder, save, wait, be patient and, most of all, live within our
means," Huckabee said. "That's the American way. It's not spending
ourselves into prosperity or taxing ourselves into prosperity."
Huckabee said the scholarship programs were among his
highest priorities, but there are other options to help students go to college
without increasing taxes. He suggested that students who won't be getting
state-funded scholarships should join the military to finance their education
or take out student loans.
"Some of us went the old-fashioned way -- W-O-R-K --
and we worked our way," Huckabee said.
Huckabee said he knows of no public groundswell for higher
taxes and suspects there isn't one.
Huckabee told the audience that he has "no
intentions" of calling the Legislature into special session to consider
any taxes. "There's got to be a better way," he said, provoking one
of several rounds of applause from his audience.
After his speech Huckabee hedged a bit, saying he wasn't
rejecting such a session under all circumstances.
He also pledged to "vigorously and steadfastly
oppose" efforts to establish a state lottery or legalize casinos to
offset the budget cuts because gambling "entice[s] the poorest citizens
in our state to play games of chance in which they will lose the paycheck they
cannot afford to lose for the hopes of winning something they did not
Riggs responded, "I think it's ludicrous to say we
don't need to look at revenue enhancements like that."
The governor ridiculed the logic of those who think increasing
taxes would be advisable during the current economic downturn. Anyone who
thinks more taxes is the answer
"lives in luxury ... have more
money than good sense" and is out of touch with the hardships faced by
working Arkansans, he said.
Teachers likely won't get all the raises they were promised,
students will lose access to scholarships, and the needy will be left without
services because "the governor is unable to formulate a reasonable budget
and is clownish enough to think the state doesn't need some form of revenue
enhancement," Riggs said.
Brown commented, "I think we could have had a
discussion behind closed doors, with key leadership, but I think that cow's
probably out of the barn. It's probably too late. I think part of the problem
is that next year's an election year."
It's appropriate for tax
increases to at least be considered because the cuts were not anticipated by
Huckabee and lawmakers when the Legislature was in session this year and are
affecting important areas, Brown said. "I see the car going over the
Brown last week proposed "targeted," temporary
tax increases such as an income tax
surcharge or increased tobacco taxes to offset cuts to key programs such as
teachers' raises and college scholarships. "I'm sorry he hasn't taken at
least my comments more seriously,
because they were offered in good faith," Brown said.
He said Arkansans concerned about education and human
services would be open to at least considering higher taxes for specific
Beebe said any consideration of higher taxes should be
discussed in the context of a potential ruling against the state in the Lake
View school funding case.
That case could result in the largest
tax increase in Arkansas history if the Arkansas Supreme Court agrees
with a lower court judge that the state should pump as much as $900 million in
new funding into public schools.
"That's not really how you deal with the issues we're
confronting right now," Broadway said. "I don't think you shut the
door to anything. Tax increases aren't
easy. But I think you've got to step up to the plate and not just blanketly
say no. ... How long will it take the economy to recover? We don't know. We
have to look at all the options."
Brown said he doesn't plan to contribute to the
Tax Me More Fund because he doesn't consider it a
serious approach to the issue. "I'm serious about the needs of teachers.
... I've been in education all my life. It's not a political issue for
me," he said.
Huckabee said he's "amazed when people with a straight
face say they don't think Sept. 11 [terrorist attacks] had that big an impact
on the economy. How anyone can say that in the face of the facts is beyond
After revenues began slowing, the Huckabee administration
on March 29 chopped $58 million off the administration's original budget
estimate for fiscal 2002. He said Wednesday that until the attacks, the state
was meeting the lowered March forecast.
The state's general revenue budget totals about $3.4 billion
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