For Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, the road to beating President Obama runs through public policy. Our April 2011 cover story. Read it now!
From the April 2011 issue of The American Spectator
In news accounts assessing the likely 2012 Republican presidential field, there are a number of descriptions typically associated with Mississippi governor Haley Barbour. White Southerner. Thick accent. Gifted fundraiser. Connected. Former lobbyist. But when you ask those who know him, another characterization comes to mind.
“He’s a policy wonk, which a lot of people don’t realize,” said Ed Gillespie, a political strategist and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, who has known Barbour since 1993 and considers him a mentor. “[People] tend to think of Haley Barbour as very politically savvy and good on television and smooth, but he really is a policy wonk at heart.”
Mississippi native Ricky Mathews was publisher of the Sun Herald in 2005 when Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast, and he got to know Barbour by serving on a commission the governor put together to help manage the response and recovery.
“He has a mind like a steel trap,” Mathews recalled. “He remembers facts and numbers like no one I’ve ever come in contact with.”
Jim Nicholson, who served under Barbour at the RNC from 1993 to 1997 and then succeeded him as chair, offers a similar impression.
“He is a fascinating person,” Nicholson said of Barbour. “His ‘hail fellow well met’ persona belies an acute intelligence. I mean, he is really bright and grasps complex matters and complex issues fairly quickly and can articulate and advocate very effectively….A lot of people don’t know that because of that personality and thick Southern accent, so he sneaks up on a lot of people with that brightness of his.”
Barbour’s chances of winning the presidency — or even capturing the GOP nomination — have largely been written off, and not without good reason. After all, he’d be a white guy from the deep South challenging the first black president, a dealmaker who was one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington seeking the nation’s highest office in the midst of a fierce anti-establishment backlash. The “dean” of the Washington press corps, the late David Broder, recently branded the Mississippian a “a long-shot possibility for the nomination.” In an appearance on Meet the Press in February, Barbour was asked about a Gallup poll showing him with just 3 percent support in an early survey of Republican voter preferences, and he quipped: “I didn’t know my family was that big.”
Yet there are also reasons to believe that his chances are being significantly underestimated — at least when it comes to the GOP primaries. In a wide-open field in which all the potential candidates have flaws, it’s hard to write anybody off to begin with, and that’s particularly true in Barbour’s case. As one of the party’s most talented fundraisers, Barbour should have plenty of money at his disposal in any presidential bid. If his successful stewardship of the RNC when the GOP took Congress in 1994 and of the Republican Governors Association in the stellar 2009 and 2010 years are any indication, Barbour would run a top-flight presidential campaign organization. His network is extensive and he’s beloved within the party. And in a party that has a tendency to nominate candidates who are seen to have paid their dues, he has as good a claim as anybody running. At the same time, he has a story to tell as someone who combines conservative views with demonstrated competence as an executive and two terms as governor.
“We can’t make the changes to public policy that are necessary to get America on the right track without electing a new president,” Barbour told me when I spoke to him in late February during a visit to Washington, D.C. for a governors’ conference.
It’s also clear that the policy emphasis will be part of how he’ll respond to questions about the role of race in the campaign. “The hard left who would never vote for me want to make it a big issue,” he said. “They want to make race a proxy issue, because they don’t want the election to be about public policy. They don’t want the election to be about Obama’s policies. They want some charade about something else. And when you have a white Christian conservative Republican from Mississippi, the easiest straw man to throw out is race.”
HALEY BARBOUR WASN’T ALWAYS so interested in public policy, or even in politics. Unlike those who will tell you that they were motivated to get into the field due to ideological beliefs or some higher principles, he’s quite candid that he sort of fell into it.
“Politics wasn’t talked about a lot around our house; Daddy died when I was a little bitty boy,” Barbour, now 63, told me. (His father passed away when he was two.) “I was more interested growing up in baseball, in football, in student government. Not particularly in anything else.”
That began to change in 1965 when his older brother came back from the Army a Goldwater Republican. Soon, his brother decided to run for mayor of their hometown of Yazoo City. Republicans didn’t have a line on the ballot, so he ran as an independent, and won — becoming the youngest mayor in the state at 27. “I helped him in his campaign, had a good time,” Barbour said.
In the summer of 1968, his brother learned that the Mississippi state GOP was looking for help during the election that would see Richard Nixon capture the White House. The young Haley, then an undergraduate at the University of Mississippi, decided to take the fall off and work for the party.
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