At an elegantly catered tea-time roundtable fête with reporters Wednesday afternoon, likely Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said public sector unions ought to be entirely eliminated, or hamstrung to limit worker benefits and influence over elected officials. During the same session, though, he admitted that a life of public service, and running for public office, has left him without a sizable nest egg. In fact, he acknowledged that he wants to delay a final decision about the presidential campaign so he can put away more of the big-time private sector money he’s currently making.
But just before offering a candid assessment of his own finances, Huckabee endorsed two policy measures — Social Security benefit cuts, and the privatization of Medicare — that would erode the safety net for public workers and others of modest means.
“If it’s [collective bargaining for public sector unions] not eliminated I think it has to be certainly somehow contained in a reasonable, responsible way,” Huckabee said. “And I don’t have a specific proposal other than just to recognize that it is not the same to have collective bargaining at a public employee level as it is at the private sector level.”
His argument was two-fold. Public sector unions have a corrupting influence on politics, he said, and government workers themselves are already overpaid.
“They have a parasitic relationship with the states, and a symbiotic relationship with the federal government,” Huckabee said. “Nationally public employees are now making 30 percent more in wages and 70 percent more in benefits and health than are their private sector counterparts.”
Corrected for education levels, public sector workers actually make less than their private sector counterparts.
And indeed, Huckabee knows a thing or two about the earning potential in public service.
“One of the things that I have to understand is that if I run, you know, I walk away from a pretty good income,” Huckabee said later in the luncheon about his lucrative media income.
So I don’t want to walk away any sooner than I have to, because frankly I don’t have a lot of reserve built up. Most of my life was in public service. And therefore I didn’t come away wealthy. I’m trying to recover in order to do public service — in order to run for president the last time, I cashed in my life insurance, my annuities, I pretty much went through everything I ever had as an asset that I thought I might one day live on….
If I do this I’m gonna hopefully be in a position where I’m not so completely destitute at the end of it that I have no idea what to do if I get sick. Or if I retire. Or if I’m retired early, or have a disability. Those are the things I have to think about, because I’m self-employed, I don’t have, you know, some safety net to fall into.
Though life in public service isn’t lucrative, and can leave even a national figure like Huckabee without a safety net for retirement, Huckabee wants to chip away at existing programs to protect the elderly poor and middle class.
“It’s time to consider raising the retirement age for Social Security and changing the rules of Medicare,” Huckabee said. “I think there’s gotta be a revamp, maybe looking at voucher programs to put more control in the hands of the individual patients.”
When you sum it all up, Huckabee’s broad policy goal seems to be to limit state-government spending by holding down public sector wage growth, making it harder for government workers to create a cushion for themselves before they fall into a weakened safety net. And this new paradigm has to be implemented before he’ll engage in a discussion about raising taxes on anybody — to strengthen entitlements or other anti-poverty programs. “You can’t even talk about it,” Huckabee said. “Don’t even bring it up.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.