Friday, November 30, 2001

The showman
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 inferiority complex.

   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 Fundsaid 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 suggestion.

   "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 feel better."

   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 to anger.

   "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 fund.

   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 simplistic solutions.

   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 earn."

   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 cliff."

   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 purposes.

   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 me."


    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 a year.

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