Is Huckabee conservative?

Some GOP conservatives worry that a President Mike Huckabee would be like George W. Bush in domestic policy, not using his constitutional power to restrain government spending; and like Jimmy Carter in foreign policy, not using military power to restrain anti-American forces.

Despite big jumps in spending, President Bush did not veto any bills during his first six years in office — so I asked Huckabee, "How will you hold the line against increased federal domestic spending?"

He responded, "I will work hard to get a line-item veto that meets constitutional muster. My general philosophy will be to oppose creating new government programs . . . I will reduce the federal payroll through attrition as many baby-boomer federal employees retire."

Huckabee also emphasized the role of state government: "I will look to the states for innovations they have found in their ‘laboratories of democracy’ that we should adopt at the federal level, and I will look for areas where we can provide block grants to the states instead of expensive, detailed federal programs. Since states must balance their budgets, they know how to stretch taxpayer dollars more effectively than the federal government."

One oft-cited conservative charge is that Huckabee would push aside individual preferences and demand a national smoking ban. When I asked him about that, Huckabee responded, "I believe that regulation of smoking should be left up to the states. However, the issue is not banning smoking, but providing clean air for people in workplaces." That statement is a typical Huckabee turning of perspectives, from (for example) patrons of restaurants and bars to those who work there.

On the use of military force, some Christians are pacifists who believe that Jesus’ injunction to turn the other cheek is a universal commandment. The more common exegesis, though, is that this refers to personal offenses but not to national policy concerning terrorism.

Question: "When an adversary attacks us, should we turn the other cheek?"

Huckabee’s response: "Absolutely not, and we can’t wait to be attacked; we must prevent attacks. In this age of terror, we must constantly be on the offensive to hunt down radical extremists who want to kill every last one of us and destroy our civilization."

Some conservatives are calling Huckabee a "compassionate conservative" and equating that position with liberalism. I noted that misidentification and questioned Huckabee about it: "Compassionate conservatism started out as a program to help the poor while decreasing the size of government by increasing the role of civil society. Bush administration spending led some Republicans to call it a euphemism for big government. What’s your view of compassionate conservatism?"

Huckabee responded, "I believe each of us has an obligation to give of our treasure, time and talent, to help those less fortunate. However, I don’t support trying to have big government substitute for individual and community responsibility. I don’t view compassionate conservatism as ‘big government,’ but rather as encouraging individuals and groups to do more for those less fortunate, sometimes with help from government at various levels."

He went on to say, "The most valuable thing the government can do for the poor is protect the opportunity created by our free-market economy, enacting pro-growth policies that create jobs, make certain that every child has access to a first-rate education, and adopt policies [like tax policies] that encourage marriage and the family. Much of the poverty in this country is in families headed by a single mother."

Jonah Goldberg, a strident anti-Huckabee conservative, complained this past Sunday that Bush/Huckabee compassionate conservatism is "a political program that apparently measures compassion by how much money the government spends on education, marriage counseling and the like."

He has a point, since the Bush administration has regularly defended itself against charges of callousness by citing dollars of federal spending — and that’s falling into a liberal trap. One test of Huckabee will be whether he can explain better than Bush the alternative to both softheaded liberalism and the hardhearted variety of conservatism.