Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
If Bill Clinton’s experience is prologue, the media and Mike Huckabee’s opponents will soon give the governor his first measurements for the history books — that is, if he begins to be counted as a serious candidate for president.
For Clinton, the takeouts in the big Eastern newspapers and Republican opposition research characterized his dozen years running the state as a time of modest school reform, lots of new taxation and a drubbing for the environment as Tyson Foods and the rest of the poultry industry poisoned streams and valleys with the tacit blessing of Clinton’s government. And, of course, there was Jeff Gerth’s epochal account in The New York Times on March 8, 1992, of Clinton’s and Jim McDougal’s foolish bargain to borrow money to develop 230 acres of wilderness in Searcy County and call it Whitewater Estates at a moment when interest rates were so stratospheric that only millionaires were looking for a weekend homestead.
Huckabee’s assessment by the media is apt to be just as shallow and just as negative. National reporters do not come to town scavenging for the good news. They will write about all his ethical lapses, secrecy and clever fund-raising schemes. But there is much more than that to the decade in office of this self-described “paradoxical Republican.”
That is why, as part of its encyclopedic services, the Arkansas Times offers for one-stop shopping its own studied impressions of the Huckabee government. (For another and more sublime view, people can go to the governor’s website [http://www.arkansas.gov/governor/newsroom/index.php] and read his own accounts of his manifold accomplishments.)
Nettled by Republican tormentors who kept calling him a big-government liberal, Gov. Huckabee got sore last April and pronounced, “When I walk out this door, there’s never been a more conservative governor of Arkansas.” His unofficial presidential blog started labeling him the most conservative governor in Arkansas history.
Huckabee has always been prone to make rash claims that are easily proven false and that come back to mock him. He did it famously the week before the general election when he boasted repeatedly, erroneously each time, that he had smelled a skunk and vetoed the bill that later turned out to finance the illegal activities of Sen. Nick Wilson and his friends. His veto of a tiny section of the bill would merely have forced funding of the program from a state account other than the one that paid for the operations at the Governor’s Mansion.
The claim of conservative paragon was another such claim. Columnists had a good time contrasting Huckabee’s record with the pantheon of racists, bourbons, demagogues and hidebound scrooges who had occupied the governor’s seat for most of Arkansas’s past. He was further to the right than them?
But it also identified a central truth about the Huckabee administration and the difficulties of a race for the Republican nomination for president. What Republican base can he possibly command?
Unless you restrict conservatism to the single issues of abortion and gay marriage he has not been a traditional Southern Republican. Huckabee is often disingenuous, stubborn, secretive and partisan, but he has not been a dogmatic or even a very reliable conservative.
If liberalism is a belief that government should try to relieve hardships and create a more just and equitable social order, in the Arkansas and Southern contexts Huckabee has been at least a medium-sized liberal. Measured by their progressive impulses, he belongs in the top half of the governors of the past century. The competition is not fast.