Haley Barbour knows his politics – “my business,” as he calls it. He reshaped Mississippi’s political environment after doing a pretty good job for Republicans at the national level when he was ringmaster of the big tent.
He is also plain-spoken. Witness his description of the Tea Party-influenced Republican tactical defeat last week as “really stupid” in response to a question at the Tupelo Civitan Club.
“In my business of politics, you don’t pick a fight you know you’ll lose,” he said.
Since last year’s election, Barbour has been among the national party elders urging a recasting of the Republican message. The ascendance of the Ted Cruzes in the party wasn’t what he had in mind.
For Barbour, it’s all about winning. And before you win legislative fights, you have to have a strategy that makes sense and that can carry the day. Martyrdom may be noble in some cases, but in politics it’s just a killer.
You want to live to fight another day. For that fight to be successful, you need to increase, not drive away, those prone to be sympathetic to your cause. The Republican strategy that led to the shutdown of the government and the near-default has made reversing Obamacare less, not more, likely.
How? By tactics that alienated many in the middle of the political spectrum and sent Republican poll numbers tumbling. Thus, Barbour’s stated concern about the impact on the 2014 elections.
He should know. The government shutdown in 1995, largely driven by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, came when Barbour was in charge of the Republican National Committee. Under Barbour’s stewardship, the Republicans had taken the House for the first time in four decades the year before, but that shutdown helped propel a previously struggling Bill Clinton to a second term in the 1996 election.
To affect policy, you first have to win elections. To win elections, voters must have confidence in your ability to govern – people across a fairly broad spectrum, not just the ideologically driven.
If the Republicans had won the 2012 presidential election and with it the Senate, much if not most of Obamacare would probably be history by now. But they didn’t, and it’s not.
What wins elections isn’t the spectacle of a government insurgency that risks an economic recession, depleted retirement accounts and a general loss of confidence in America around the world. By turning over tactical control on Obamacare and the budget to a minority of politically suicidal insurgents, Republicans in Congress telegraphed to the nation that the grownups had left the room.
Enter Barbour, Jeb Bush, John McCain and others who had long since had enough. But they have a massive internal battle on their hands.
Whether or not state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, a Tea Party favorite, is able to defeat Thad Cochran in the Republican U.S. Senate primary next June, assuming Cochran seeks re-election, McDaniel will run an aggressive, well-financed race with big national donors that will be a prime exhibit of divisions within the GOP nationally. Roger Wicker, like Cochran, defied the Tea Party with his vote on the deal to reopen the government but has four-plus years before he has to worry about re-election. Rep. Alan Nunnelee, who in August had lamented the possibility of a government shutdown, likely inoculated himself against a serious primary challenge by voting against the deal to end it.
The Tea Party movement is not easily written off, and it seems unusually energized by defeat. It will continue to be a headache to the Haley Barbours of the GOP and an impediment to a national Republican resurgence that could actually produce policy progress instead of profiles in purity.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.