SID SALTER: Barbour's political absences embolden state's lawmakers

By Sid Salter

Gov. Haley Barbour’s growing national presence as a political force of nature and his status as an undeniable A-list potential Republican presidential contender has sparked a torrent of national media speculation and an explosion in the political blogosphere of so-called “Haley Watch” offerings.
For Mississippi’s intensely popular but term-limited, two-term governor from Yazoo City, that’s the up side. The downside is that Barbour’s frequent absences from Mississippi for Republican Governors Association business, general GOP activism and fundraising and other legitimate travel associated with his job as governor of Mississippi are just that – frequent absences.
Plot thickens
In politics, absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. It emboldens the timid and inspires those who don’t march to the same political drummer to start their own parade with a new drum major.
To be certain, if Barbour could seek a third term as governor of Mississippi, the majority of state voters would elect him. Barbour’s popularity is not at issue.
But the more Barbour is absent from Mississippi and the stronger his presence in national politics, the weaker his presence becomes in state politics. For state legislators facing 2011 re-election bids in an anti-incumbent political environment, worries about keeping the favor of a lame duck governor would begin to lessen if Barbour were walking the halls of the Capitol daily. It’s politically inevitable.
In a recent social setting with several veteran legislators, one said: “I’m looking forward to the time when we receive the Executive Budget Recommendation the way we used to by throwing it in the garbage can.”
Back to the future
The reference was clearly one of deep respect for Barbour’s political skills in making himself a dominant governor in a state that constitutionally has a “weak governor” by dictate of the 1890 Constitution. But as a governor with one year left to serve and a critical 2011 session hanging in the balance, Barbour’s too smart not to know that when the cat’s away … he’s less relevant.
Look for Barbour’s in-state profile to grow beginning, oh, say, Nov. 3. That day, Barbour’s national profile will likewise be redefined by election results.
Doubt that? Here’s what Time magazine’s Mark Halperin had to say on that topic just this week: “Among the totems in Haley Barbour’s office in Jackson, Miss., is a cheeky sign that reads, ‘Power corrupts but absolute power is kinda cool.’
“In this season of broad conservative ascent, Barbour is approaching absolute power. As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he is masterminding the capture or retention of as many as 28 governorships for his party in November. His fundraising – expected to top $90 million by Election Day – has enabled him to pour millions of dollars into voter-turnout efforts that will help all kinds of Republicans further down the ballot and generate chits from grateful recipients,” Halperin concluded.
Whether Barbour picks up those chits for a national race or hunkers down after Nov. 2 to knock heads with Mississippi House Democrats one more time is the unanswered question.
Sid Salter is Perspective editor at The Clarion-Ledger and a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 961-7084 or ssalter@jackson.gannett.com.