Mike Huckabee, 60, is among the small group of 2016 Republican presidential candidates who have run for the White House before. The former Arkansas governor made a significant impact in the 2008 race, winning the Iowa caucuses before losing the nomination to John McCain. Subsequently he became a Fox News TV host.
Huckabee's distinction now, as in the 2008 campaign, is twofold. He's a Baptist minister with special appeal to conservative Christians. And he brings a working-class sensibility to his economic agenda that diverges from Republicans' traditional closeness to corporate America. He attributes some of his inability to capitalize on his 2008 Iowa win to opposition from Wall Street.
He sat down with me to discuss his 2016 campaign at The Home Plate Diner in Des Moines, Iowa. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.
HARWOOD: Tell me what you think was the impact, if any, of the pope's recent visit. Would you like to see him change the position of the Republican Party on the way our market system works?
HUCKABEE: I wish the pope better understood how the market system works, and how it can work for everyone. But look, there's some things about right now, the way the market system is working — it's not working real well for everybody. I was saying that eight years ago. And boy, I was getting savaged for it by the elitists who thought that I was an idiot.
In the (2007) CNBC debate, in fact, in Dearborn, Michigan, we were all asked, "How's the economy doing?" Most everybody was giving the standard Republican boiler-plate language that "It's just doing great." I said, "Well, I guess if you're working in the corner office, things are going swimmingly well. But if you're out there lifting heavy things and you're sweating through your clothes every day, things are not going well in your economy." And I was just pilloried for that by The Wall Street Journal and by others who thought that I was a total ignoramus.
Well, it turned out I was pretty darn ahead of my time. Because within a year, the economy had fallen apart, and the people at the top were feeling what I was watching happen to the people at the bottom already.
HARWOOD: You were a Republican populist before it was cool. Right now, what is a populist Republican economic platform?
HUCKABEE: One is that we stop punishing people for their productivity. It's one of the reasons, John, that I still think that the fair tax, the tax that would be placed on our consumption instead of on our productivity, would be a dramatic turn. It would help, I think, the entire economy from top to bottom.
But it especially helps the people at the bottom because right now if people at the bottom work really, really hard, they get punished for it by being thrust into a new tax bracket that means they don't really earn a double paycheck for double work. And they should.
Another thing that we need to do is to make the government benefits, as you begin to grow into your own personal economy and do better, you don't have a threshold at which you go from all benefits to nothing. That keeps people really in the enslavement of benefits out of sheer necessity. You create the sliding scale like we did of welfare reform back in the '90s, so that these people are doing better through education, through new jobs. They only lose benefits that's proportionate to how much they're earning. But you also make it so that their work lets them earn more and have a total life better than the one they once had.
HARWOOD: Economists say, "Better to tax consumption than investment; that's good for the economy." On the other hand, consumption taxes are very regressive. How could you possibly have a system that would not provide disproportionate benefits at the top, who consume much less of their income than at the bottom?
HUCKABEE: It's a classic misunderstanding of the fair tax as presented by what the Bush tax commission did. It looked at purely a consumption tax, but not specifically the fair tax. If they had, they would have understood that the "prebate" on taxes for people at the bottom, for their necessities — the people at the bottom under the fair tax end up doing about 14 percent to 15 percent better than they do under the current tax system. People in the middle third of the economy, 7 percent to 8 percent better. People at the top still do better, but only about 4 percent to 5 percent. Everybody benefits because you broaden the tax base which is always an important tax reform. You always want to make the base broader, and the rate smaller, and that creates a more equitable tax obligation.
If people represent small-business owners, they know how this would transform their ability to function and survive. A person living off passive income is not going be as affected by the fair tax. They'll be OK. They'll be better off. But their world is not going to be rocked one way or the other. They're not being paid by the hour. If a person is in the top 1, 2 percent, a person can afford the best lawyers and accountants and they'll find a way to shelter their income.
That's why there's almost $21 trillion parked offshore. It's legal. I don't blame people for putting it there. I'm not even against people putting it there. What I'm for is changing the tax code so they bring that money back to the U.S., and then it becomes an economic stimulus the likes of which we've never seen before.
HARWOOD: Let me ask you about Wall Street and its relationship to the rest of the economy. Dodd-Frank was passed at the early part the Obama administration. Was that a good idea?
HUCKABEE: Terrible idea. Do something that affected the people who messed up. Dodd-Frank didn't really affect the big banks. They're bigger now than they've ever been. We reformed nothing.
They're still playing games with derivatives, still playing the games, turning Wall Street into a casino. What I would do is get rid of Dodd-Frank, which (would put) the power back in community banks. Dodd-Frank has punished the banks that never created the problem.
They have to have some (regulation). I'm not sure that the repeal of Glass-Steagall was a brilliant idea because you erased the line between traditional banks. You created a blur. And I believe a lot of what we saw happen with the crash of 2008 was because banks that once were investment banks were trying to be full-service banks. And full-service banks were trying to become investment banks. It just became one great big house of cards, and it collapsed.
HARWOOD: Ben Bernanke, who as you know was appointed by a Republican president, said that he regretted the fact that no individual Wall Street executives were prosecuted for their roles in leading up to the financial crisis. Do you agree with him?
HUCKABEE: Absolutely. Absolutely, they should have. These were the smartest people in the room. John, these were the people that were supposed to be the geniuses. These were all Ivy Leaguers, and they knew darn well what they were doing — shuffling paper around and getting paid ridiculous sums of money.
They didn't produce things. They didn't make or manufacture. They weren't making an iPhone. They were betting on what an iPhone might be worth in a few years, and selling it off. It was a casino. And I got in trouble for saying that very thing eight years ago. I'd like to say, "I was right."
If the same kind of shell game had been practiced on the street, do you think the cops in the bunco division wouldn't have gone down and busted 'em? It's not a witch hunt when you prosecute criminal behavior that cost 5 million people their homes, for God's sake. Five million Americans lost their homes in foreclosure — 5 million. That's not just about having to load up your furniture. The emotional impact of a person having a foreclosure is devastating to a family. And I want to know who answers for that.
Does anybody ever accept responsibility for the fact that 60,000 manufacturing plants have closed in this country, 5 million manufacturing jobs have disappeared since the year 2000? Every day I meet people, John, who are today working two and three part-time jobs, and make less money than they used to make when they had one full-time job that paid 'em benefits and had a pension.
HARWOOD: Why do you think none of those prosecutions ever happened?
HUCKABEE: Money, politics — that's what I say. Look, the contributions keep flowing to Washington. Washington keeps doing the dance. Washington is like a strip club. You got people tossing dollars, and people doing the dance.
And as long as the dollars are getting tossed, the dances continue. And as long as the dancers continue to dance, the dollars keep getting tossed. But while the Washington-Wall Street strip club's going on, you got people out there in the middle of the country and all over America who are losing their homes, losing their jobs and wondering: "How the heck doesn't somebody stand up and do something about it?"
HARWOOD: Is that why you're not raising all that much money right now? The strip club's not tossing dollars your way?
HUCKABEE: Yeah. I'm getting mine in dollars instead of in Benjamins. Look, I never expected that I was going to be the darling of Wall Street. The irony is that no president would probably be better in the long run for a real healthy economy than me, because what I'd love to do is to turn capital loose in the country.
I want to see the old kind of true capitalism — not crony capitalism which is what we have now, where you got buddies in the political world. They'll get you a deal. They'll get you grants. They'll get you exemptions. They'll get you favors.
You're going to make a lot of money but you're not making a product. You're not really creating anything. You're just moving money around and taking the commissions. That's not building America — that's building a handful of people's personal wealth at the expense of people who used to be able to work in a factory, take a nice paycheck home to their kids, build a room on the house when the fourth child comes, take their kids to Disney when they get a little older and live a pretty darn good life. What's happened to that?
HARWOOD: You sound a little bit like Hillary Clinton, or maybe even Bernie Sanders.
HUCKABEE: No. I think the difference is — I'm not sure how much they love capitalism. I love capitalism. I think it's the best system economically, but I want it to be pure and honest and forthright.
If you work hard, you get paid well. And if you work even harder, you get paid better. And you benefit from your productivity; you don't get punished for it. We've got people all over the country that we ought to be putting to work building bridges and roads and airports and water systems and sewer systems. Three point two trillion dollars worth of infrastructure, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, that is a immediate need right now. That'd be a lot of construction jobs. And guess what? Can't outsource those. You're not going to outsource the building of a bridge to China.
HARWOOD: You were at your peak political strength when you ran in 2008 — had a good shot, made some headway, didn't quite get there. If you didn't decide to follow that up by running in 2012, why now?
HUCKABEE: Because I think I'm better prepared to do it now. In 2012, I don't think I was ready to take two years off with no income. People forget that unless you have, you know, a hundred million dollars socked away — walking away from every bit of your income, hey, that's a pretty serious deal.
You know the dumbest thing people have said? "I don't think Huckabee's really serious about running — I think he's just wanting to get a TV show, maybe a book deal, maybe make some speeches." What a stupid thing to say. I had a TV show. I had a book deal. I was making more speeches than I could keep up with. That's what I walked away from to do this.
HARWOOD: By running this time, are you doing it in the actual belief that you can win? And are you actually trying to win, as opposed to being in the race for some other purpose?
HUCKABEE: I can't imagine anybody would run for president and go through this grinding, grueling, tortuous process for any reason other than they truly a) thought they could win and b) thought they would win.
The fact that somebody right now says, "I don't think Huckabee's doing well," it doesn't bother me. Because I know looking back that everybody who is leading in the race at this point in time never even made it to the top slots when it came time to vote. If I'd believed that in 2008, I would have gone ahead and acquiesced to President Giuliani, President Thompson or President Romney. I beat all three of 'em.
We're not voting until February. You've covered this long enough to know that any candidate, on any given day, can implode. Any candidate can decide he's had enough. Voters who tend to get infatuated with a candidate early on tend to sort of say, "Well, let's look around a little more." You don't want to peak too early. Summer blockbusters are rarely Oscar winners in the spring.