Friday, November 30, 2007

HUCKABEE? Funny, improbable, ascendant.

In Hendrik Hertzberg's December 3, 2007 New Yorker profile of Republican candidate Mike Huckabee he quotes the candidate's stump speech on Education and Health Care. Huckabee is a former Southern Baptist clergyman - not given to the ten-second sound byte. He speaks calmly, in stories, parables, and extended metaphors.

On education, he talked not about standardized tests or back-to-basics but about something like their polar opposite. "We have to change and reform the education system so that we're capturing both the left and the right sides of the kid's brain," he said. "There ought to be a new focus not just in math and science—which there needs to be—but also a balanced focus on music and art and right-side-of-the-brain activities. Otherwise, we end up with an education system that's like a data download—a great database but no processor." On health, he skipped the usual denunciations of socialized medicine and noted, as Republicans seldom do, that "we spend so much more per capita than any other country on earth"—far more than second-place Switzerland. "The current system says, 'We won't pay a hundred and fifty dollars for the visit to the podiatrist, we'll wait until there's a thirty-thousand-dollar amputation and we'll cover that.' "

The Foreign Policy parable is as much about kids as the education one:

The foreign-policy section of his talk (what there was of it) was a leisurely account of how his children laugh at him when he tells them that his grade-school class used to "duck and cover" in fear of a Soviet nuclear attack. "Somehow, in our naïveté," he said, "we thought that if the world is coming to an end the crosshairs of the first nuclear missile would be aimed at the Brookwood Elementary School, in Hope, Arkansas." The section's conclusion—and the speech's only hint at how the speaker might deal with what he called "a very dangerous world"—was a single sentence: "I want to be the President that helps to make it so that your grandchildren laugh at you when you tell them you used to have to put your toothpaste in a plastic bag and take your shoes off to get on an airplane to go somewhere in this country."

None of this is to say that Huckabee's policy positions are much better than those of his Republican rivals; in some cases, they're worse.

  • He wants to replace the federal tax code with a gigantic, horribly regressive sales tax;
  • he cannot name a single time he has ever disagreed with the National Rifle Association;
  • he wants to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage and abortion.

In practice, however, the sales tax and the amendments would go nowhere, and he couldn't do much about abortion except appoint Scalia-like Justices to the Supreme Court—which his rivals have promised to do, too. God knows what his foreign policy would look like, but no one else does.

To all appearances, Huckabee's gentle rhetoric is a reflection of temperament, not a stylistic tactic. Arkansans caution that he is capable of churlishness. But his history suggests that he prefers consensus to confrontation, that he regards government as a tool for social betterment, and that he has little taste for war, cultural or otherwise. He seems to regard liberalism not as a moral evil, a mental disease, or a character flaw—merely as a political point of view he mostly disagrees with.

The good news is that Education is emerging not just as an issue to choose sides over ("We must save/discard No Child Left Behind at all costs!") but as a subject for discussion. Hear hear! - and thank you Roy Romer and ED in '08. - smf


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