Positioning is everything.
Because he has a Southern drawl more pronounced than Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter or Lyndon Johnson, some immediately dismiss Gov. Haley “Hitch Up Your Britches” Barbour as a national candidate.
Others simply don’t want to think about the next presidential election so soon after the last one, which, after all, featured 14 or more months of solid jabber-jawing before voters finally had their say, electing Barack Obama in November.
So OK. Don’t think about it for now. But understand this: It’s a process. One need look nowhere other than the phased approach taken by the former junior senator from Illinois – once self-described as a most unlikely candidate – to see that purposeful steps are taken over a period of years to gain the nation’s attention.
During the weekend, Mississippi was host to the annual huddle of the National Governors Association.
The 22 Republicans among them are a somewhat troubled group.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would have been the star attraction for the media due to her celebrity status with conservatives because of the energy she added to the GOP ticket last year and, more prominently, because the left, which includes the entertainment industry, insists on regarding her as a shallow kook. But she resigned as governor to seek her fortune, perhaps literally, as a conservative icon without the trappings of elective office.
Another big name was South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. But he’s been in the news not for rallying conservatives, but merely as this month’s example of another politician who says one thing and does another.
And there’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, presiding over the financial meltdown of California.
Enter Haley Barbour. As host, he could set or influence the agenda. And offer up his views on national issues to the cameras. And show off the Mississippi Gulf Coast four years after Katrina, America’s worst-ever natural disaster.
Now in terms of the basic routines of their lives, Georgians weren’t noticeably changed by the governorship of Jimmy Carter. Ask a guy at a gas station in Arkansas how Bill Clinton transformed Arkansas and a puzzled expression might be the response. Barbour is term-limited in Mississippi and must move out of the mansion in January 2012 no matter what. Workaday citizens here might be equally challenged to talk about his accomplishments.
But don’t worry. The talking points list is being compiled – and talking points win elections.
On Haley Barbour’s watch:
* Public education funding soared by unprecedented percentages to unprecedented amounts. Student dropouts decreased and scores rose.
* Despite entering office facing a $700 million deficit, the state’s budget was balanced for his first year and every year since – and reserves were rebuilt, too.
* The state’s major sources of revenue – its income tax and sales taxes – were not increased. The only increases were on bad old tobacco and in assorted fees, including car tags.
* Mississippi, the state where the aforementioned Katrina made landfall, asked for less than a third of the recovery money Louisiana received from Congress and Mississippi has spent it on organized, targeted projects with much efficiency and little-to-no scandal.
* For re-election, Barbour was endorsed by many prominent state Democrats, some of whom are black, including Mike Espy, a former Clinton administration official.
* Mississippi is aggressively pursuing secure energy for the future.
* The state has landed several new, major employers.
Of course, people can put asterisks and, “yes, but…” with every item. But when they do so, they’ll appear to be quibblers.
For now, and many, many times in the weeks and months to come, Barbour will continue to eschew any notion of a presidential campaign. Instead, he will say, truthfully, that the most important event on his party’s horizon is winning state and federal offices in 2010.
Republicans are in decent shape to pick up some governorships and the party of a new president almost always loses ground in the House and Senate during mid-term elections.
Because Barbour, as national chairman of his party, engineered the effort that won Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress two years after Bill Clinton was elected, it’s only logical that he, again, will figure prominently as a go-to guy.
Obama began his term six months ago with more enthusiasm for his agenda than any president in recent history, but has been hamstrung by not being able to turn around the worst economy in generations. His “unfavorables” are rising.
If Barbour devises strategies that win for Republicans in 2010 and if America appears ready to try conservatism again, no one will be in a better position for the nomination, drawl or not.
These things take time. There are variables. But it’s all about position. Barbour’s talking points are ready. And if the stars align just right …
Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of the Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.