For Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, the road to beating President Obama runs through public policy. Our April 2011 cover story. Read it now!
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“That’s how I began to consider myself a Republican,” Barbour said. “That I helped my brother and then I went to work for the party and then one thing led to another….[It] all evolved. If you would have asked me when I was 15 years old, or 18 years old, or even 21 years old, ‘Do you think you’ll have a career in politics?’ I would have laughed.”
During the 1970s, after graduating from law school and working as a lawyer, Barbour became more active in state and national politics — he said he worked for Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1976 and later ran seven states for Gerald Ford. Though he described himself as a “Reaganite” during this period when we spoke, he actually worked for Reagan’s rival in the 1980 primaries, John Connally.
In 1982, he sought office himself, challenging the octogenarian incumbent Sen. John Stennis. While Barbour lost in a landslide, his large cash haul impressed the party. The race also produced a helpful artifact for Barbour — a recorded video endorsement from President Ronald Reagan, which reemerged on the Internet this February.
Three years after receiving his endorsement, Barbour actually joined Reagan’s White House as political director. Future Indiana governor Mitch Daniels was his boss, and they fostered a friendship that continues to this day. The two of them also worked closely with Andy Card, who went on to become chief of staff to President George W. Bush. “It was heady stuff for a boy from Yazoo City, Mississippi, I would have to tell you,” he said of his time at the White House.
“I WAS NOT SATISFIED with the Bush presidency,” Barbour told me, referring to the elder Bush. When he ran for chairman of the RNC in 1993, he argued that the party was rejected by voters in the 1992 elections because it didn’t adhere to its principles and stand for anything.
“I tried to recreate the party around self-sufficient state parties, small donors,” Barbour recalled of his fundraising strategy. “When the other side has got the White House, there are no big donors, because you’ve got nothing to sell access to.”
Barbour became a large part of the Republican effort to oppose President Clinton, and helped craft a strategy to take back control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years, working closely with Newt Gingrich and other congressional Republicans to establish the GOP as the “party of ideas.”
Jim Nicholson, who wore several hats at the RNC at the time, including vice chairman, said Barbour deserves a lot of the credit for the Republican takeover. Not only did Barbour see the opportunity, but he was also able to raise money and build an organization that allowed Republicans to take advantage of the climate.
In 1994, Barbour faced stiff opposition within the RNC for wanting to take out bank loans allowing them to maximize the amount of money they could spend on competitive House races. “His whole mantra that fall of 1994, was, ‘We’ve got to strike while the iron is hot,’” Nicholson remembered. “Haley prevailed, and it was the right thing to do. It helped us in key races.”
Barbour’s interest in public policy was apparent when he led the RNC, as he jumped into the day’s debates in a way that isn’t all that common for party chairmen. In December 1993, freshman Pennsylvania representative Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, who cast the tie-breaking vote for the Clinton budget plan, which included a massive tax hike, became the subject of an RNC attack ad. Barbour accepted her challenge to a debate on a Philadelphia-area radio station, leading to a one-hour back-and-forth on federal entitlement spending that survives online thanks to the C-SPAN web archives.
Margolies-Mezvinsky was defeated in the November 1994 Republican tidal wave, and when the GOP attempted to implement its agenda, Barbour once again played a central role in the debates, particularly when it came to fighting the media’s characterization of the proposed Medicare reforms. When the New York Times published a front-page story in September 1995 headlined, “House G.O.P. Plan Doubles Premiums of Medicare Users,” Barbour fired back with a letter to the editor citing data from the Health Care Financing Administration showing that premiums had nearly doubled over the preceding seven years, meaning this was the continuation of a trend rather than a new development.
Barbour also pushed back hard against the idea that Republicans were proposing cutting Medicare, emphasizing that they were merely slowing the rate of increase. He grabbed attention by taking out a series of ads promising to pay $1 million to anybody who could prove the following statement false: “In November 1995, the U.S. House and Senate passed a balanced budget bill. It increases total federal spending on Medicare by more than 50 percent from 1995 to 2002.” While the ad produced a lot of claimants, and a series of lawsuits that dragged on for years (several Democratic members of Congress sued), ultimately they lost in court and the RNC kept the $1 million.
One of his efforts to foster conservative policy ideas ended up embroiling Barbour in a scandal. In 1993, Barbour used $100,000 in RNC “seed” money to start a think tank that held “grassroots” forums throughout the United States aimed at developing policy ideas. The National Policy Forum was established as a nonpartisan, nonprofit institution, but Barbour served as chairman of both the NPF and RNC simultaneously, which would come back to haunt him. (Future UN ambassador John Bolton served as president of the group for part of this time.)
In 1997, the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Governmental Affairs began looking into allegations about Asian attempts to influence the 1996 elections. With the Clinton administration under fire, Democrats honed in on Barbour’s solicitation of a $2.1 million loan guarantee from Hong Kong businessman Ambrous Young, to the National Policy Forum, in 1994. The money he obtained from Young through a U.S. subsidiary was then used to pay off a $1.6 million debt to the RNC, money that was then available for the party to use on elections. Democrats argued that this was a complex way around the ban on foreign political contributions.
Anybody who wants to get an idea of how Barbour would hold up under scrutiny during a presidential race should visit the C-SPAN online archives and view his July 1997 testimony before the committee. During the hearing, Barbour said he was outraged by the charges, which he felt smeared him and besmirched the good work of the National Policy Forum, yet he calmly responded to them. He advanced two central arguments — that he was not aware at the time that the funds he was soliciting came from a foreign source, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because as a nonprofit, NPF was allowed to solicit foreign donations.