LLOYD GRAY: Barbour will still manage to wield power

Almost simultaneously with Haley Barbour’s announcement last week that he wouldn’t run for president, Newsweek magazine hit the stands with a two-page spread speculating that the Mississippi governor could conceivably emerge as the Republican nominee.
We’ll never know, of course. To virtually everyone’s surprise – outside of his wife and family, presumably – Barbour exited the presidential race before his campaign became official. While he never definitively said he would run, all the signs pointed to a candidacy. He had acted in every way over the last few months like a man with his eyes on the prize.
But he didn’t have the “fire in the belly,” he said he decided. That’s plausible, especially when it would have meant enduring not just the usual intense scrutiny all candidates undergo but extra piling on because he’s a former lobbyist and a white male Mississippian who came of age in the civil rights era.
It’s also important that first lady Marsha Barbour had no burning desire – to put it mildly – for her husband to take the plunge.
Many, if not most, people who run for president have planned to do so for a long time. For some, it’s a virtual lifelong ambition.
The need for affirmation and adulation undoubtedly drives some people to run for president. For others, power – perhaps combined with a sense of service, perhaps not – is the primary motivator. In any case, a healthy ego is a prerequisite to running for president.
Barbour has a healthy ego, but it’s not one that requires the kind of public stroking and center-of-attention spotlight that many politicians thrive on. The years have proven one thing about Haley Barbour above all else: He enjoys wielding power, and he’s extremely effective at it.
The majority of his career, and even on the national scene while he’s been governor, that power has been exercised in behind-the-scenes fashion, whether as a strategist for the fledging Republican Party in Mississippi and the South, as an adviser to Ronald Reagan, as national GOP chairman, as a major league lobbyist or as head of the Republican Governors Association. In other words, Barbour is as comfortable – and one might assume, as content – in the role of an inside powerbroker as he is as an out-front elected official.
The extraordinary power he has wielded in two terms as governor and his accompanying popularity have been buttressed by a public personality that doesn’t cry, “Look at me,” but that instead conveys a seriousness of purpose about the business at hand.
It’s not that Barbour doesn’t like to get credit or won’t claim it. He certainly likes to get his way, and is often relentless until he does. But he’s not a political preener.
This may be the most important reason he decided he could do without a presidential campaign. He doesn’t need the attention and affirmation, and he’s confident that he can still play a major role – and wield a lot of power – doing something else within the Republican Party. In fact, he’s in better shape to maintain a power-broker role not having gone through the inevitable intra-party antagonisms a presidential campaign would produce.
In other words, after two terms as a governor – a high-profile elected official – Barbour can return to an arena he previously mastered as a low-profile kingmaker and deal-clincher.
What about the vice presidency? Plenty of politics followers think that’s what he’s thinking right now. He’d have too much baggage at the top of the ticket, but maybe his positives would outweigh the negatives as somebody’s running mate. He could be plucked up in August 2012 and only have to campaign for two or three months.
Maybe, but I don’t think so. It just doesn’t fit the Barbour mold.
This governor of ours can remain the behind-the-scenes godfather of Mississippi politics long after he’s left office, if he chooses. And he could do that simultaneously with playing some kind of pivotal, unelected role in Washington for many years to come.
He’d probably have a lot more fun doing that than being president, and certainly than being an also-ran contender for his party’s nomination.
Haley Barbour may not have had the “fire in the belly” for the presidency, but he’ll still be doing what he’s always done better than most – getting the things done that he wants to get done.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.

Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal