LLOYD GRAY: Big-tent Barbour emerges as unity apostle for GOP

By any standard, Mississippi has always been one of the nation’s most conservative states. Our politics is about as red as it gets.
Many if not most people considered liberals in the context of Mississippi politics over the years have been moderate or even slightly right of center by national standards. Conservatives in Mississippi, on the other hand, have tended to be squarely on the right flank of national political identity.
That’s why it’s so intriguing that Mississippi’s first serious prospect for a major national party presidential nomination in modern times is emerging as a voice of moderation in the Republican Party’s internal struggles, and that one of the major obstacles to his nomination as the GOP standard-bearer could well be the perception that he is an insufficiently pure conservative ideologue.
Gov. Haley Barbour is a politico with conservative bonafides all around. But he’s also always been a “big tent” Republican wary of litmus tests for party candidates. Anybody who agrees with me 80 percent of the time is my friend, Barbour is fond of quoting Ronald Reagan.
That’s not the approach of the insurgents within the GOP at the moment, principally the newly powerful tea party activists and the candidates they embrace. Their belief is that the 20 percent matters more than the 80 percent, and they’re intent on purging the party of those candidates and even incumbent officeholders deemed insufficiently conservative.
Barbour, the former national party chairman and premier political strategist, knows that while this pursuit of purity can motivate those engaged in it for a while, it is not a recipe for long-term political success and majority party status.
Barbour believes the party should embrace all who share basic conservative principles and want to call themselves Republican and not be strident about orthodoxy on every single issue. This outreach also extends the other way – to the tea partiers many establishment Republicans wish would go away.
In a recent Wall Street Journal column, Barbour wrote that “on the issues foremost in voters’ minds – the economy, jobs, spending, taxes, debt and deficits – the overwhelming majority of tea party voters and Republican voters are in strong agreement.”
Speaking of races in which tea party insurgents beat incumbents or party establishment candidates, Barbour wrote, “When the Republican voters of a state choose a party nominee in an open process like a primary, we Republican leaders must support the nominee.” He went on to chastise defeated Republican candidates who are considering write-in candidacies in November as enabling the Democrats to benefit by a split conservative vote.
It’s the last part – a winning strategy, regardless of personal preferences – that’s at the heart of Barbour’s political approach and that has been his trademark as a GOP strategist for decades. While it’s also conveniently helpful to Barbour’s image among tea partiers, who may be suspicious of such a longtime party insider, it’s consistent with Barbour’s long career.
His current role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association and his enormous success in that role as a party fundraiser – plus his continuing interest in a possible presidential run – have raised Barbour’s national profile in recent months. Last week’s Time magazine offers the latest Barbour-as-GOP-uniter themed article, complete with a huge color photo.
All of the attention comes with a recitation of Barbour’s negatives as a potential presidential candidate: Former big-time lobbyist, consummate Washington insider, rotund Mississippi white guy with a southern drawl running against the first black president, etc. He’s also been uncharacteristically clumsy, and less than completely candid, in his national media interviews about his own experiences in the civil rights era and the factors that contributed to the emergence of the Republican Party in the South.
But in each case, it’s clear that Barbour is seen nationally – and is comfortable cultivating the image of – a guy who would be more electable than, say, a Sarah Palin or a Jim DeMint, because he would be more palatable to middle-of-the-road voters, not to mention traditional Republican party leaders and activists. This is quite something when you think about it – a staunchly conservative Mississippi governor who’s seen as more electable than many in the national Republican fold. It says a lot about the rightward progression of the GOP in recent years.
The one person who’s got to believe Haley Barbour’s recent national press clippings before it can all play out is Barbour himself. If he decides to run, we’ll know it’s because he believes he has a chance.

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

LLOYD GRAY / NEMS Daily Journal