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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It’s not totally true that he never criticized Clinton on international affairs while chairman of the party. His 1996 book contains a large section on foreign policy, much of which is filled with criticisms of the Clinton approach that echo Republican criticisms of Obama today. For instance, he wrote that during the first three years of the Clinton presidency, “American leadership has eroded, and drift and uncertainty have increasingly characterized world affairs. The challenge for Republicans is to reestablish constructive leadership in the world. The Clinton administration has failed to implement the first priority of American foreign and defense policy — the protection of American values and interests.”
In February, Barbour traveled to Israel to speak at the Herzliya Conference, and while there, managed to visit its offshore natural gas site, as energy issues are one of his passions. “I’m very interested in energy,” he said. “And I think energy is a gigantic issue, the 800-pound gorilla in the room, that doesn’t get talked about as much as it needs to….While America, because of the Obama administration policy, has a permatorium on drilling in the Gulf, here’s Israel that sees it as an enormous part of their security.” He noted that when he visited the drilling site, “I hate to tell you, most of the Americans I met on the rig were working in the Gulf of Mexico this time last year and they got run off by the shutdown by the Obama administration.”
Barbour said he supports strong ties between the U.S. and Israel. “It is a critical relationship for a variety of reasons,” he said. “Israel is our genuine unfledgling [sic] ally. They don’t flinch as being our ally. They are also a very potent ally militarily but also in terms of technology, economically, morally….[W]e’ve got to be committed to a secure, prosperous, Jewish, democratic Israel.”
He also rejected the view that U.S. ties to Israel have created problems for America. “I do think they’re an asset to us,” he said. “There are a lot of American foreign policy types who I think consider Israel a burden, that when you weigh the scales that Israel costs more than they’re worth. My view on that’s different, maybe because I was in White House during Reykjavik.” Barbour went on to recall that a few years before Reykjavik, in 1982, Israel shot down more than 80 Soviet-supplied Syrian planes without losing a single American-made plane. He views this as one factor that made Mikhail Gorbachev realize that the Russians would never be able to win an arms race with the U.S.
A PRESIDENTIAL BID could put Barbour in the position of running against Newt Gingrich, who he worked closely with as chairman. An interview Barbour did with CNN’s Candy Crowley last year provided some insight into how the two of them — who both take policy seriously — might campaign.
During the interview, Barbour was asked to comment on Gingrich’s declaration that Obama was “the most radical president in American history.” In his response, Barbour was reluctant to criticize Gingrich, but at the same time made clear that he’d phrase things differently.
“You know, in my life in politics, I’ve always told people to speak temperately and act boldly,” Barbour said. “I don’t — radical is not a term that I’d use very often to describe anything. But there is no question, it’s a matter of fact, that the policies being pursued by the Obama administration are the farthest left. It has been a gigantic lurch to the left. And I think that’s what Speaker Gingrich was trying to convey. But, you know, the words I would use are ‘the most left-wing’ because that’s what the truth is.”
Should he run, Barbour will have a stable of defenders because of the personal relationships he’s built up over the years.
“If Haley Barbour is your friend, you don’t have to worry about him being there when you say you need a shoulder to lean on,” said Ed Gillespie, who’s told me he’s turned to Barbour for advice on everything from starting a business to raising kids. He noted that such loyalty is rare in politics.
Asked how this would translate into a presidential run, Gillespie said, “I’m not sure there is anyone in the field with the exception of those who have run before — Gov. Romney and Gov. Huckabee — who has a broader range of contacts in the critical states, both primary critical states and general election critical states to draw on and to call on than Haley does.” Gillespie himself said he’ll support Barbour if he runs, but will otherwise remain neutral.
When I spoke to Barbour about Republican prospects of recapturing the White House in 2012, he acknowledged that it would be a difficult task. “It’s an understatement to say it’s difficult to defeat a sitting president,” he said. “Only one time since 1896 has a party won the White House away from the other party as the Democrats did in 2008 and lost it back in just four years. Of course, that was Jimmy Carter.”
At the same time, he did see an opening. “[T]he 2010 election was the most massive repudiation of any president’s policies in American history,” he said. “And if the  election is about policy, and the president continues on the same policies, then I believe there is a very good chance that he can be defeated, because the American people know that we have to have the right kinds of policies in order to get the country on the right track.”
One of the arguments made after Republicans’ back-to-back losses in 2006 and 2008 was that the party had run out of ideas and had nothing new to offer when it came to the nation’s greatest challenges. It remains to be seen whether Barbour’s background and his lobbying experience would ultimately doom his candidacy, as his skeptics argue. But either way, his presence could force the other candidates to place a lot more emphasis on policy.
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