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Advisor John Hart

Advisor John Hart — LPA Foundation

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Mike Huckabee’s Troubled Populism

May 19, 2015

Democrats eager to portray Republicans as a party plotting to “take away” seniors’ Social Security and Medicare benefits received an unexpected boost recently, not from one of their own but from a new entrant into the Republican presidential field: former Arkansas Governor, Fox News host, and perennial candidate, Mike Huckabee.

Twice in the past month Huckabee has all but declared – with demagogic innuendo refined by Democrats – that he alone is committed to protecting safety net programs from the rest of the Republican field.

In his announcement speech Huckabee said, “There are some [code – my dangerous opponents] who propose that to save the safety nets like Medicare and Social Security, we ought to chop off the payments for the people who have faithfully had their paychecks and pockets picked by the politician, promising them that their money would be waiting for them when they were old and sick. My friend, you were forced to pay for Social Security and Medicare. For 50 years, the government grabs the money from our paychecks and says it’ll be waiting for us when we turn 65. If Congress wants to take away someone’s retirement, let them end their own congressional pensions, not your Social Security.”

Last week, Huckabee double downed on this rhetoric when he signed an expansive “Pledge to the People” that included a pledge to “protect Social Security and Medicare and never rob seniors [code – like my opponents want to do] of the benefits they were promised and forced to pay for.”

“Huckabee’s strange embrace of liberal orthodoxy on entitlements couldn’t have come at a worse time not just for the Republican Party, but the republic”

Huckabee’s statements have been cheered by left-of-center outlets like Slate, MSNBC, and the New Republic, which said Huckabee is prepared to “blow up Republicans’ big ruse” on safety net reform.

The New Republic, sadly, is right to describe Huckabee’s comments as explosive.   Huckabee hasn’t merely wandered off the conservative reservation. Instead, he has relocated himself in the other side’s reservation and is using their weapons and tactics against his fellow conservatives. He hasn’t merely left the big tent; he’s shelling it from the left.

Huckabee’s strange embrace of liberal orthodoxy on entitlements couldn’t have come at a worse time not just for the Republican Party, but the republic.

The 2016 campaign is unfolding at a time when the bankruptcy and collapse of our safety net isn’t a far off problem but an imminent economic reality. In just over a year, the Social Security disability program will run out of money and disabled Americans will face a 19 percent reduction in benefits unless Congress and the president agree on a fix.

Huckabee’s curious decision to court Bernie Sanders Republicans gives tremendous comfort to the far left wing of the Democratic Party and their War on Math.

Huckabee’s populist pandering on entitlements is starting to sound like that of self-avowed Socialist and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (above).

The big ruse on safety net programs is on the left, not the right. For decades, Democrats have peddled three magical notions about Social Security: 1) The Social Security trust fund is secure (it isn’t), 2) Social Security doesn’t add to the deficit (it does), and 3) Social Security is a great program for low and middle income families (it isn’t).

Yet, thanks to Huckabee, instead of pressing our case that the Democratic policy platform is an Enron that hasn’t yet collapsed, Republicans have to explain that they don’t want to “rob seniors.”

Huckabee’s response is typical Washington politics at a time when the country desperately needs real solutions. Huckabee has fallen back on tired political calculations. His equation is this: Populism – policy = pandering. Huckabee’s pandering, of course, is all about securing his nomination, not the benefits of disabled Americans.

Fortunately, Republicans candidates who want to run on solutions have options. Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute has an outstanding piece on Social Security disability reform in National Affairs that lays out a way forward for conservatives.

The disability debate is important because it’s a critical juncture in what will become an increasingly contentious and difficult fight about safety net reform. Liberals will fight for more funding as long as possible while conservatives will push for reforms that will protect safety net programs while avoiding debilitating tax increases that would rob future generations of opportunity.

“Huckabee has exposed himself to the very charges he is hoping to levy against his opponents”

Huckabee’s position is particularly unhelpful because he’s enthusiastically defending the left’s core belief in the universality of entitlement programs – that all should pay in and all should receive benefits. Many conservatives, on the other hand, argue that the only way to save benefits for lower and middle income Americans is to consider structural reforms that provide less generous benefits for wealthy Americans who can afford to save and invest on their own.

Huckabee has “pledged” to not go that route. Yet, pledges are the language of political expediency, not principle. Pledges confer upon the pledger an immediate political benefit while absolving them of the responsibility and peril of proposing specific solutions to practical problems.

Still, politicians who live by pledges also die by pledges. By ruling out any modest income testing or even an opt-out policy that lets wealthy Americans divert their benefits to those who are less fortunate, Huckabee has exposed himself to the very charges he is hoping to levy against his opponents. After all, by defining income testing for anyone, including himself, as “robbing seniors,” it is Huckabee who wants to supplement his lavish Fox News retirement on the backs of disabled moms in Iowa.

Not only that, but Huckabee has also pledged himself to the left of people like Joe Lieberman, the former Democratic nominee for vice president who has embraced income testing for Medicare. As Lieberman has said, “We can’t save Medicare as we know it. We can only save Medicare if we change it.”

Those words are nails on the chalkboard to the far left. The fact that Huckabee finds them offensive shows just how circuitous his path to the Republican nomination may be.

This article originally appeared at OpportunityLives.com.