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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His performance at the hearings earned him a begrudging respect in some unlikely places. “Point by point, with color charts for the senators and glossy handouts for reporters, Haley Barbour today rebutted Democratic assertions that the Republican Party accepted illegal foreign contributions when he was the party’s chairman,” the New York Times’s lead read. The article marveled at his “star quality,” and noted that “Mr. Barbour’s preparation for his performance — every word carefully considered, every inflection clearly rehearsed — would have made an accomplished musician proud.” Another New York Times article described how he worked the Democratic side of the committee “nimbly as a dealer cracks the cellophane from a fresh deck of cards…”
In the end, the Republican-led committee found that Barbour’s actions were “neither illegal nor improper,” while the Democratic minority dissented. By this time, the NPF’s nonprofit status had already been revoked by the Internal Revenue Service.
Though the organization is long since defunct, it did produce a 1996 book, authored by Barbour, called Agenda for America, laying out a detailed set of policy proposals for Republicans.
IN 1991, BARBOUR had formed a lobbying firm, BGR Group, which he could devote his full energies to after his term as chairman of the RNC expired in 1997. In 1999, Barbour sold the firm to Interpublic Group for $20 million, while remaining on, and in 2001 Fortune magazine named it the most powerful lobbying firm in Washington. The roster of big-name clients — including large oil, tobacco, and pharmaceutical companies, as well as foreign governments — proved very lucrative, but his lobbying career will also be the biggest obstacle he faces running for president, as his work will provide a treasure trove of opposition research material for his rivals.
While Barbour may have a sympathetic ear among Republican primary voters when it comes to attempts to portray him as a racist, they could be a lot less forgiving when it comes to lobbying. There was a time when Republican voters were inclined to defend large corporations, but ever since the 2008 Wall Street bailout, there’s been a growing recognition that big business is perfectly willing to set aside free market principles and cozy up to government when it sees it as in its interest to do so. Indeed, this recognition was one of the driving forces behind the emergence of the Tea Parties. In February of this year, presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty opened his speech to a Tea Party Patriots summit in Phoenix by lumping “big bailed out business” together with “big unions” and “big government” as part of “a royal triangle of greed.” If there’s one criticism that Barbour is most vulnerable to when it comes to his conservative credentials, it’s that when business interests have clashed with limited government principles, he has often sided with business.
In 2009, he vetoed an eminent domain reform bill that would have made it harder for the state to take private property for private uses. Barbour argued that, if enacted, the legislation would have been “catastrophic” for the economy of his state, as it would discourage large corporations such as Toyota, Nissan and PACCAR from building there. In 2010, he pushed for subsidies for Kior, a biofuels company, to build three plants in Mississippi. And in February of this year, he defended farm subsidies in an interview with the Daily Caller. The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney, who has written extensively about the intersection between big business and big government, wrote: “If the Tea Party still has some wind, it’s hard to see how Barbour gets anywhere near the GOP nomination.”
When I asked him to respond to charges that he’s a big business Republican, Barbour recalled a speech he gave to the Business Roundtable in the 1990s in which he “told them that the Republican Party was the party of small business, not big business, because big business doesn’t have a party.” He recalled a headline in the financial press after the speech: “GOP to Big Business: Drop Dead.”
“I am a small business Republican,” Barbour insisted. “I am free market capitalist and if it gets down to being one Republican politician in the United States who is a free market capitalist, it’d be me. Fortunately, there are lots of others like me. But I am very very aware that sometimes big business’s agenda and even more often their political support is not aligned with conservatism or small government, or lower taxes even much less, less spending. But those are the things that I’ve always supported.”
During the 2010 election cycle, Barbour was smart enough to recognize the importance of the Tea Parties, and, unlike other national Republican leaders, did not get in scuffles over their influence. He argued that party leaders should butt out of primaries and allow voters to decide, and played down any talk of an intraparty rift.
In a January 2009 interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Steve Moore, Barbour himself seemed to acknowledge the difficulty of running for president as a onetime lobbyist. “[T]he American people aren’t likely to ever elect a former Washington lobbyist as president,” he was quoted as saying.
When I asked him if anything had changed in the past two years, he told me, “If I said that, it was as a joke.” He continued, “When I ran for governor, everybody in Washington and New York said, ‘Oh, a lobbyist can’t get elected governor.’ Well, I was elected, and I defeated a sitting Democratic governor by seven points who spent millions of dollars attacking me for being a lobbyist of all the clients I represented.”
Barbour notes that while he represented some of the nation’s largest pharmaceutical companies as a lobbyist, as governor of Mississippi, he implemented a Medicaid reform that emphasized purchases of generic drugs to save the program money.
“Once I got elected governor of Mississippi, my only client was the people of Mississippi,” he said. “If I’m elected president, or if anybody else is elected president, the day afterward, they’re gonna be lobbying. They’re going to be lobbying Congress, they’re going to be lobbying business, they’re going to be lobbying labor, they’re going to lobbying our foreign allies and adversaries. Because that’s what presidents do, they advocate. And lobbying is just a form of advocacy.”
BARBOUR’S CONNECTIONS IN WASHINGTON came in especially handy during Katrina. When the storm slammed the Gulf Coast in August 2005, Barbour’s calm and steady leadership — and reluctance to criticize the federal response — stood in stark contrast to the performance of elected officials in the neighboring state of Louisiana. At the same time, he was able to use his muscle in Washington to secure $24 billion in federal funds for Mississippi.
Six days after Katrina, newspaper publisher Ricky Mathews convened a meeting with Barbour and key officials to discuss the response. “I’ve often described Gov. Barbour after that meeting as being a man on a mission,” Mathews said.
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H/T to National Review Online