Mike Huckabee served as governor of Arkansas from 1996 through 2007. He spoke with the Harvard Political Review during his fellowship at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University.
Harvard Political Review: Healthcare reform is at the center of America’s political conversation today. In 2005 you published a book entitled, Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork, chronicling your own weight-loss experience. Do you see preventative measures like weight-loss as important to the success of the American healthcare system?
Mike Huckabee: Absolutely. The fact is 75-80 percent of all healthcare costs in America are spent dealing with chronic disease, diseases that aside from genetics could be largely controlled by focusing on eating, exercise, and smoking. Those are the three behaviors that drive most chronic disease. You know everything we do, in the terms of the way we train doctors to the way we reimburse—it’s all based on how much intervention you’ve provided and not how much you’ve prevented. I think that’s a very foolish system.
HPR: Some have criticized the Republican Party for failing to propose any concrete alternatives to the Affordable Care Act. What role might the government play in encouraging the preventative steps you talk about?
MH: The Republicans have put forth quite a few measures. There’s a group of Republican doctors in the House, for example, who have put a number of measures on the table. The problem is they don’t get attention for it because they don’t have the megaphone. It’s not that Republicans haven’t provided alternatives—they have. Some of them include everything from buying insurance across state lines to putting a greater focus on prevention. But I think we need to be looking at some other big things. We need to be saying, “If Alzheimer’s is going to cost us $1.5 trillion by the year 2050––which by the current trajectory it is––shouldn’t we be looking at a way to put a heavy focus on preventing and curing Alzheimer’s?” Much like we did with polio in the ’50s, like we decided we were going to go to the moon in the ’60s.
Those are smart decisions that we ought to be making that we’re not making. They’re not necessarily inexpensive, but they’re less expensive than allowing the trajectory of, say, Alzheimer’s. We could also look at diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Take those four things and put a concentrated approach to try to deal with prevention and cure as opposed to just treatment.
HPR: Let me ask you this then. In a 1998 Arkansas-Gazette article, you were quoted as saying: “I didn’t get into politics because I thought government had a better answer. I got into politics because I knew government didn’t have the real answers, that the real answers lie in accepting Jesus Christ into our lives.” Do you stand by these remarks?
MH: Sure, now keep in mind the context, I was saying that in a church gathering.
HPR: But do you think the government might have a better answer when it comes to attacking large problems like Alzheimer’s?
MH: Well, of course. That wasn’t an answer about Alzheimer’s, that was an answer about the great spiritual qualities of mankind, which I would stand behind. But if we’re talking about the specifics of a public policy, where it’s building a road, I’m not sure that I could say Jesus is going to build us a real nice highway. You know, let’s be practical.
But in the context of what I was saying—which lifted out makes no sense at all—it makes perfect sense. Governing, though, is about solving problems, that’s what you do. So you figure out what are the problems. If the problem is that we have a healthcare crisis, that we’re spending upwards of 18 percent of our gross national product on healthcare, more than any other country on Earth, then we’ve ought to be asking ourselves why we’re spending disproportionately. Is it because we’re getting that much better healthcare? Or is it because we’re spending it foolishly? I think the fact is we’re spending a lot of it unwisely.
HPR: You’ve mentioned before that your experience as a minister gave you unique insight as a governor. Do you think that as a minister you have certain insights into this recession of historic proportions, which has had such a destructive impact on people’s lives?
MH: I don’t think it has anything to do with being a minister, and of course it’s been 25 years since I was. I think it has to do with being a person with a little common sense. If you spend money you don’t have, and you borrow money you can’t afford to pay back, you’re going to be in financial trouble. Every student at Harvard probably knows that. Every person running a small business knows that. Every household knows that. Government’s the only entity in our entire culture that doesn’t seem to understand that. So I think it has more to do with whether your eyes are open and your brain is functioning for you to understand that.
HPR: This is something really anyone can get behind?
MH: I mean, you ought to be able to understand that. The economic recession has been very painful because people at the top have done fine. And when people now hear, particularly from the Obama administration, that we’re in recovery, things are getting better—that may be for the people who are at the top, they are doing fine. But the people at the bottom of the economy, the people who sweat through their clothes every day when they work, they’re not doing better. It’s been ludicrous to say they are. They’re working shorter hours, they get less per hour, their benefits have been cut, the benefits they do have cost them more, they have less certainty about their long-term job security, and their education, healthcare, food, and fuel costs have all gone up. So how can you say they’re doing better? They’re not.
HPR: Then what would you see as the “common sense” solution to what’s happening at the bottom income brackets?
MH: Much of it is to create a true marketplace where employers aren’t afraid to hire people. Right now people don’t want to hire. They don’t want to hire because they don’t know what their tax consequences will be, they don’t know what their costs are going to be in relation to healthcare, they don’t know if they’re going to be forced to pay higher wages. So everybody just sits back and says, “Now I’m not going to hire.” Employers who could hire full-time people will now only hire part-time people so they don’t invoke Obamacare, employers that would’ve had employees over the threshold of 30 hours will keep them under 29, employers that would’ve had 51 employees will keep them to 49 because they don’t want to cross that threshold. This is the first time in American history that we’ve actually created a system in which we discourage growth on the part of job creation, and it doesn’t make any sense.
HPR: You’re not only a politician, minister, and talk show host—you’re also an accomplished musician. Are there any lessons from playing in a band that apply to politics or working on a political team?
MH: Absolutely. When you play music, first of all you learn that you’re not the only person in the band. That’s an important thing to learn. People in politics have to understand it’s not all about “me,” it’s about working with people. It’s being able to bring harmony, and understanding that every person is different, each has his or her own place, although some may have a little more prominent role in some songs than others. But take any of those pieces out and the music’s not the same. And you learn how to learn. Music is all about repetition; it’s about doing something over and over until it becomes second nature to you. All of those lessons that I’ve gained from music, and particularly playing in bands, are very, very applicable to politics.
HPR: You’re a bass player. Some would say that a good bassist is a conservative one, holding down the fundamentals in a song while the rest of the band branches out. Do you think the bass guitar is a conservative instrument? What do you admire in a bass player?
MH: You know the bass is actually a percussion instrument. A lot of people see it as another guitar, but it’s percussion, and it locks with the drums to provide the bottom of the sound. I think it’s a vital part of the song because it provides the track on which the train runs. You take it out and it just doesn’t sound right. A good bass part is not overwhelming or predominant, but provides a solid foundation on which the melody then gets played. And when it’s done right, it’s a beautiful thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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