INTERVIEW PART 1: Policy issues -- Huckabee expresses vision & tradition

EDITORS' NOTE: Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, and Duncan Hunter, U.S. representative from California, are Southern Baptists running for U.S. president in 2008. Baptist Press contacted their respective campaigns and today publishes a three-part package about Huckabee's policy positions and values. Our interview with Hunter will run next week.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--Speaking across America, Gov. Mike Huckabee does not shy from letting voters know he is a presidential hopeful from Hope, Ark., and he is quick to add they should "give Hope a second chance."

Sharing a birthplace heritage with former president Bill Clinton is not the only novelty that some identify with him. Huckabee is known as the "preaching governor" (he was a Southern Baptist pastor prior to politics) and for being "half the man" of his former self (he lost 110 pounds after being diagnosed with Type II diabetes).

He also plays bass guitar in a rock and roll band known as Capital Offense (preferring a heavy guitar genre like the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival). But Huckabee's governance of one of the poorest states in the nation and his strong debate performance combined with his policy positions have gained him crucial recognition.

In 2005, Time Magazine named him one of "America's 5 Best Governors," citing specifically his success in significantly reducing the number of uninsured Arkansans under 18; halving welfare rolls; and growing the state's economy ahead of the national average.

The 2007 summer of debates has elevated his stock among observers in the media, who have dubbed him a favorite dark horse of sorts. Among the accolades:

-- National Review Online: "smart guy, can turn an artful phrase or two, good executive experience"

-- Human Events: "exceeded expectations again, and -- again -- left many of us wondering why his candidacy isn't gaining grounds in the polls"

-- New York Observer: "Time and again, Mr. Huckabee asserted himself as the strongest orator of the bunch ... and the discussion of the troop surge provided his finest moment of the night." [Huckabee had challenged the anti-war position of fellow Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, saying, "Congressman, whether or not we should have gone to Iraq is a discussion the historians can have, but we're there. We bought it because we broke it. We've got a responsibility to the honor of this country and to the honor of every man and woman who has served in Iraq and ever served in our military to not leave them with anything less than the honor that they deserve."]

During his campaigning, Huckabee has had a lot to say about issues of key interest to Southern Baptists. In an interview in which he was alternately affable and serious, Huckabee shared with Baptist Press about some of those policy areas.

BAPTIST PRESS: Governor, a particular concern for Southern Baptists is the composition of the courts. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court upheld the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, underscoring the importance of each presidential appointment. What will be your approach to nominating jurists?

HUCKABEE: I want to appoint judges who understand it's their purpose and role to interpret the law, not to make it. They need to be not only strict constructionists, but they need to have a clear understanding of what the limitations of the court [should] be. Furthermore, sometimes people say there would be no litmus test. Let me say there would be with me.

One of the areas of a litmus test would be that they recognize that they are to interpret United States laws and not to base their decisions on international law, and that's a trend that's beginning to take place in the federal court system that is extremely unacceptable.

We have judges -- even at the appellate court level -- acting as if the precedent on which they base a decision is international law or some unofficial, so-called "treaty" that ties us to a U.N. doctrine. That should never, ever be the case for a United States judge. They have one document from which they can judge, and that's the United States Constitution.

BAPTIST PRESS: Illegal immigration is another hot button issue. In Christian circles, the discussion has been about striking a balance between obedience to the law and compassion for the sojourner in our land. What would be your focus?

HUCKABEE: Well, I think we first have to secure the borders, and we don't do that because we dislike immigrants. We do it because we love our freedom and want to protect and preserve it. The only way you can do that is if you know who's coming into your country ..., who might come in with a truck filled with a dirty bomb. You can't do that if you have open borders.

So, it's not a matter of disliking people who aren't like us, it's a matter of doing the one thing that government is supposed to do, and that is protect our security. We have to have actual secure borders. I tell people that Americans aren't angry at immigrants for wanting to come here. We would want to come here too if we were anywhere else.

But we're angry at our government for making it harder for me to get on an airplane in my own hometown than for an illegal to cross the international border. That's what people expect us to fix. I put it always this way ... I thank God every day that I'm in a country that people are trying to break into, not one they are trying to break out of.

BAPTIST PRESS: General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker recently reported about the status of freedom and self-government in Iraq. What is your take on the widely differing reactions to their respective reports, and how would you address our situation in Iraq today?

HUCKABEE: We have to demonstrate that we have a will to win. If we do anything other than that, we are going to embolden Al Qaeda. The Democrats' approach is to just walk away and hopefully nobody will notice.

Well, I promise you Al Qaeda will notice. If we lose -- and there are only two choices, we can win or we can lose and if we leave, just because we don't have the stomach to stay there, we lose -- that does two things: it demoralizes our military, as well as the Iraqis', and it emboldens our enemies in Al Qaeda and the rest of the jihadist world. That's what we can't afford to have happen.

We can argue whether we should have gone, we can argue whether some of our decisions about how we're conducting the war ... whether they were the best ones. What we can't do at this point is to make the even greater mistake of losing this war, and that's what an arbitrary, automatic pull-out would in fact be.

BAPTIST PRESS: Do you have an alternative strategy?

HUCKABEE: Well, I think we continue to push for acceleration of getting the Iraqis where they can control their own security. That's the right thing to do, and that's what we're doing. It's slower than any of us want. None of us want to be there a single day more than is necessary, but the only thing worse than staying too long is not staying long enough to let our military finish the job and to give the Iraqis time to get things where they can govern themselves.

It will never be perfect. Even when we are able to pull away, it's not going to mean that sectarian issues and violence won't continue in Iraq, because it will -- it's been going on for 1,600 years -- we're not going to fix it. But, we need to make it so they can at least govern themselves -- imperfect as it will be.

BAPTIST PRESS: Governor, there is a double financial crisis looming over our country. Last year, on average, Americans spent $1.20 for every dollar they earned, epitomized by the mortgage meltdown that appears to be gaining momentum. Today the national debt has passed $9 trillion, and based on a population of 300 million that means a $30,000 debt load from the government for every man, woman and child in the U.S. At this point, what can you do?

HUCKABEE: Well, the indebtedness situation isn't surprising. If the American people follow their leaders in Congress, it's a miracle we're not more indebted than we are. They've not set the kind of example that shows that we ought to live within our means, and so Americans haven't either.

You know, the Bible is filled with a lot of admonitions about the danger of being a slave, you know the borrower is a slave to the lender, and sometimes we have appetites for things which we really can't afford.

That's what's precipitated this housing crisis. Where on the lender side, you had people that were teasing people with entry level rates -- knowing they really couldn't afford it -- and on the borrower side you had people who were purchasing far more than they could afford to pay back. I don't think the government can come in and bail people out who make bad business decisions.

If you ever start that, there's no stopping it. And it really is asking the responsible, tax-paying citizens who make good and prudent financial decisions to not only pay their bills, but to pay the bills for people who didn't make as prudent a financial decision as they did.

BAPTIST PRESS: Well ... who's going to bail out the federal government? How do you plan to address the staggering debt lawmakers have put on us?

HUCKABEE: Well, the best way to get out of the indebtedness situation is to create a more vibrant economy. I think the way to do that is to replace the very punitive tax system that we have now -- which penalizes productivity -- with the fair tax option, which would change the entire tax structure from one of taxing people at their earnings and instead tax them at the point of consumption.

We would eliminate all income tax -- both corporate and individual -- taxes on savings, dividends, capital gains and inheritance. And you would replace it with a simple consumption tax that would be levied at the time of purchase at the retail level. What it does, it ends the underground economy for drug dealers, illegals, gamblers, pimps, prostitutes.

It creates a system where you are not penalized for working the second job or for going into business or making a profit, and it provides for a much more vibrant economy. It brings the "Made in America" brand back into the country. We currently have $10 trillion of U.S. capital that's parked offshore ... that's been chased off shore by American tax policy.

BAPTIST PRESS: In terms of government spending, do you see any particular areas that you would like to trim back?

HUCKABEE: Well, the real 800-pound gorilla in spending is the entitlement budget -- largely driven by the health of Americans. For example, we spend about 17 percent of our nation's GDP on health care -- 80 percent of which is due to chronic disease. So what we really have to do is to reformulate our health care system to make it a true health care system rather than what it is now, which is a sick care system.

BAPTIST PRESS: What major changes would you make to U.S. health care policy?

HUCKABEE: First, it has to be changed from an intervention-based system to prevention-based. The whole system now is based on waiting until people are catastrophically ill and then coming in with extraordinarily expensive coverage. What has to happen is to begin to put the focus on prevention instead of intervention.

For example, we cover a $30,000 foot amputation, but not a $150 visit to the podiatrist. We'll cover a mastectomy, but in many states, women can't get mammograms unless they have enough money to pay for it.

We made changes in our state where you can ... [My] point being ... that it takes less money to prevent and to screen and to deal with diseases at the early stage than it does to wait until they're advanced. So then with those who have chronic disease -- diabetes, hypertension -- the focus needs to be on managing those diseases.

If you say we're not going to cover the medicines for your disease ... well, OK, because medicines are expensive. What's more expensive is several days in the hospital because they didn't have the medicine.

BAPTIST PRESS: What about education, Governor? I had the opportunity to watch a clip of your speech to the NEA and you spoke about the "professionalization" of the teaching profession. What about making our education system more effective and efficient? Do you see the No Child Left Behind program as needed or wanted? What changes should we anticipate from a Huckabee administration?

HUCKABEE: Well, education needs to be student-focused, not school-focused. Unfortunately the history of education in our country is that we really focus on perpetuating the schools and the institutions as opposed to really empowering students.

We have to make the curriculum exciting and desirable. We've got 6,000 kids a day that drop out of school, largely because they're bored, not because they're dumb, and that has to change. The only way to change that is to make sure the curriculum is developing both the left and the right sides of the student's brain.

Part of what has to happen is that rather than cut music and art programs they need to be restored and put front and center as a vibrant part of the educational curriculum. What we've kind of gravitated to is a left-brain focused education system that says: "We're not going to deal with music and art. Those are extracurricular and expendable and extraneous things. We're going to focus on math, reading and science."

Well, that sounds good, but if an education system is mostly data download, it's like having a computer with a database but no processor. The capacity of a student to think creatively is really what makes education work. So it's not a matter of either/or; it's a matter of both/and ... and making sure that students not only develop their logical instincts inside, but their creative [ones] as well.

As a Christian, quite frankly, if I believe God is the Creator and we're created in His image, then having an education that involves creativity is absolutely critical.


Will Hall is executive editor of Baptist Press.

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