In early 1993, the Republican Party was in disarray. Bill Clinton had taken the White House from George Bush the elder and the Reagan Revolution had run out of steam.
Enter Haley Barbour as chairman of the Republican National Committee. Barbour was the lead architect of the strategy that brought a Republican majority to the U.S. House in 1994 – remember the “Contract with America”? – and installed Newt Gingrich as speaker. A fellow named Roger Wicker was elected to Congress that year in an open seat that had been held forever by Democrats. He became president of the GOP freshman class.
Now back in political exile and trying to find itself, the national Republican Party has again called on Barbour, this time in a less official role. He’s one of a handful of GOPers who will be reshaping the party’s message in the coming months.
Washington Post political blogger Chris Cillizza said this last week about Barbour: “The Mississippi governor is, without a doubt, the most critical behind-the-scenes strategist in the Republican Party at the moment. Barbour’s experience as Republican National Committee chairman in the early 1990s is seen as essential to bringing the party back once again. Is Barbour a potential 2012 candidate? Conventional wisdom seems to be moving from ‘no’ to ‘yes.’
The talk about Barbour’s presidential aspirations, so prevalent in the run-up to the 2008 campaign, had largely subsided. But with no clear Republican political savior on the horizon, his stock among national GOPers – as a prospective candidate as well as an insider strategist – has apparently risen.
No better politician than Haley Barbour has ever occupied the Mississippi governor’s mansion. No better politician has likely ever breathed the Mississippi air.
This is a man whose every instinct is political, whose mastery of the political game is extraordinary. He will no doubt have a lot to offer a reeling national party as a strategist. But as a candidate? That’s something else entirely.
Ironically, one of the chief disadvantages of Barbour as a national candidate is that he’s a southerner. Ironic because Barbour helped plan and execute the final takeover of the South for the GOP, moving most areas of Dixie from leaning Republican to decidedly Republican in those heady days of his party chairmanship. The solid South – a term once used to describe Democratic hegemony here – became a key element in the Republican majority coalition.
But now that coalition has been fractured and a chief Republican problem is that it has evolved into an overly regional party, its power too focused in the South and slipping elsewhere. A southern candidate – particularly a 60-something white male – doesn’t do much to shake that image. Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal at least has relative youth and ethnicity to counter the geographic pigeonhole.
Secondly, there are Barbour’s years as a big-time Washington lobbyist. While it could be turned from potential liability to advantage in a Mississippi governor’s race – pride in a local boy being among the top guns in Washington – it still offers a convenient target for opponents. And clients like the tobacco companies don’t help.
Barbour has helped himself a bit by relenting on a cigarette tax increase after opposing it his first term, but that connection is just too good – or bad, as the case may be – for the political attack machine to pass up.
Given the current, some would say new-found, Republican emphasis on fiscal responsibility, Barbour would no doubt emphasize his focus on budget restraint in Mississippi government were he to be a candidate. It isn’t hard to imagine a campaign message that talks about inheriting a budget mess and cleaning it up, restoring and guarding the rainy day fund, etc. The details might be disputed back home, but it could play well on the Republican primary trail.
But would it be enough to overcome the other drawbacks, especially now that the recession has wiped out any dramatic results he might have been able to tout about job creation and economic development?
With a typical politician, the answer would be an emphatic no. Yet Barbour is anything but a typical politician. His combination of political shrewdness and personal charm make betting against him a risky venture.
Nobody can read the political tea leaves any better than Haley Barbour. If he decides to go for it, you’ll know he’s got a fighting chance.
Lloyd Gray is editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
NEMS Daily Journal