After a year of wringing their hands over their choices in the presidential race — a pro-choice mayor with an authoritarian streak, a serial flip-flopper, and a senator who is a dedicated opponent of free speech — the Republicans finally have a new front-runner.
Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses Thursday night with 34 percent (with 95 percent of precincts reporting) of the vote, handily defeating Mitt Romney, who came in second with 25 percent in spite of heavy stumping in the key Midwestern state.
Just what Republicans longing for a new Ronald Reagan needed: a religious-right candidate who is also a big-spending nanny statist.
Reporters have been quick to jump on Huckabee's comments in a 1992 Associated Press questionnaire that seemed to confirm their suspicions about a Baptist minister for Arkansas. Huckabee told the AP that "homosexuality is an aberrant, unnatural and sinful lifestyle," and called for isolating people with AIDS. That was a position, by the way, that the venerable Reagan had firmly rejected five years earlier. In 1997, then-Arkansas Gov. Huckabee pushed for a reaffirmation of the state's sodomy law, and in 1998 he compared homosexuality to necrophilia.
Huckabee says his rise in the polls can only be attributed to God's will. He endorsed the Southern Baptist Convention's declaration that "A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband." He says he entered politics to "take this nation back for Christ."
But Huckabee doesn't just want a government that will stamp out sin. He wants a government that will worry about your body as much as your soul. He says that "it is government's responsibility to try to create a culture of health," including pressuring employers to "encourage" healthier lifestyles among their employees. He wants a federal ban on smoking in the workplace and other "public" places. He's even threatened to ban cigarettes altogether.
After losing 110 pounds, he's particularly concerned about the problem of obesity. He can't quite figure out how to make eating Twinkies illegal, but he can at least be a national scold. As governor, he started screening all public school students for their "body mass index" and sending reports home to parents. He's proposed requiring restaurants to publish the caloric and fat content of their food.
Huckabee's determination to turn his own self-improvement odyssey into a national crusade reminds me of a Jeff MacNelly cartoon of the Carter era, when evangelistic ex-smoker Joseph Califano, Carter's secretary of health, education and welfare, launched a national anti-smoking campaign. MacNelly depicted Califano in Puritan garb, with the caption "And now, to discuss his decision to give up sex and what it means for you..."
In his 10 years in office in Arkansas, Huckabee also proved to be a big spender. Cato's biennial Fiscal Policy Report Card on America's Governors gave him an "F" for his last term and a cumulative grade of "D." As the study noted, "Like many Republicans, his grades dropped the longer he stayed in office...Nine days after being re-elected in 2002, he proposed a sales tax increase to cover a budget deficit caused partly by large spending increases that he proposed and approved, including an expansion in Medicare eligibility that Huckabee made a centerpiece of his 1997 agenda."
He agreed to a 3 percent income tax "surcharge" and a 25-cent cigarette tax increase. In response to a court order to increase spending on education, Huckabee proposed another sales tax increase....
Huckabee's leadership has left taxpayers in Arkansas much worse off."
And then there's Huckabee's defense of federal intrusion into local schools. He called President Bush's No Child Left Behind "the greatest education reform effort by the federal government in my lifetime." In a television ad, he declared that "The federal No Child Left Behind Act is often misunderstood and unfairly maligned as a total federal intrusion."
"As long as the states are allowed to develop their own benchmark exams to determine the manner to create standards..." said Huckabee, without any regard for NCLB's actual consequences, "there's a value of having a national effort to at least set high standards."
So . . . Republicans looking for a presidential candidate to inspire them are now faced with a tax-and-spend religious rightist who would have the federal government regulate everything from restaurant menus to local schools.
As Dorothy Parker would say, "What fresh hell is this?"