OXFORD – It wasn’t a pleasant thought. In her video, “Oops, I did it again,” Brittney Spears wears a fire truck-red leather bodysuit. Some would say the suit is wearing her. There’s very little extra space, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, while watching the Republican Party rack up a 60-seat gain in the U.S. House and six seats in the U.S. Senate last week, an image came to mind. It wasn’t Brittney cavorting in the red bodysuit. It was Haley Barbour stuffed into one. He was there in the mansion in Jackson, standing in front of a floor to ceiling mirror, jumping around and singing, “Oops, I did it again,” in celebration of the tally.
An architect – some say the architect – of Republican gains via the Contract With America back in 1994, Barbour again has been a busy, busy man.
He’s governor of the one of the least populated, least respected and most impoverished states in the Union, but Barbour is the go-to guy when Republicans find themselves out of power and wanting back in.
As Bill Clinton’s first term as president began, Barbour, who had been senior political adviser to Ronald Reagan, was put in charge of the Republican National Committee. As midterms approached, the contract was developed – a series of specific pledges, most of which dealt with fiscal conservatism. Almost all Republicans in Congress signed it as did most candidates seeking to displace Democrats. The GOP posted enough gains to take over control of both the House and Senate agendas for the first time in 40 years. (Most of the contract’s actual provisions were never enacted, of course, but people responded to the clarity and the sincerity of the pledge.)
So there had to be great joy for Barbour last week as the numbers came in from this year’s midterms.
For months he’s been telling people asking about his own presidential aspirations that what mattered most was the last week’s results. He insisted bridges are crossed one at a time.
For months he’s also been Mississippi’s governor in absentia, traveling all across America. Yes, Barbour appeared on a few talk shows and agreed to a few interviews about his efforts on behalf of GOP office-seekers across America, but most of his work was behind the scenes. (That doesn’t mean it was sneaky or underhanded – just that Barbour is not a puppet of the press. He only uses it when it suits his purposes.)
Barbour’s core ideology, of course, is plain and simple Reagan conservatism. It rests on a belief that the less government does for people, the more people are free and are challenged to do for themselves. That ideology may drive him, but in his soul of souls he’s a strategist and tactician. Better than most, he understands modern elections are more about planning and process than issues and retail campaigning. He understands that if parameters are properly set, outcomes are almost 100 percent predictable.
Examples of this are Mississippi’s 2nd and 3rd congressional districts. One will never elected anyone who is not a Democrat and the other will never elected anyone who is not a Republican. They are designed by party power brokers to achieve those results.
Another image that comes to mind – much less frightening – is handing Barbour a blank sheet of paper and asking him to draw not only the 50 states, but also to pencil in the 435 individual districts that make up the U.S. House.
No one could do that perfectly, but Haley Barbour could come closer than anyone else in the United States. He knows when a district is “in play” and it’s in those districts, such as Mississippi’s 1st and 4th districts, where efforts were concentrated with positive results for the GOP.
Politics is first and foremost about power. With the House and Senate gains and Republicans winning 29 of the 37 state races for governor, the GOP – not the Tea Party or any other upstart organization – gains major new clout.
Voters have a say only when elections are held. It’s the party with the majority that carefully crafts district lines to maximize results. Haley Barbour is like a general who has the power to design the battlefield before armies are sent out.
Haley Barbour understands that that power thoroughly.
He did it again.
Soon, the chatter about Barbour’s own political future will fire up again, if it hasn’t already. Know this: He won’t run a stupidly risky campaign for any office. Strategy first. Dancing second.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.