A Wonk in Sheep's Clothing - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
A Wonk in Sheep’s Clothing

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.

“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.

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.

Barbour soon put together the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal, to write a report assessing the state’s needs by December.

“It’s often been said about him that he’s thinking several steps ahead, so as we were uncovering what our needs might be, he was multiple steps ahead of most people trying to understand what were the policy issues related to that,” Mathews said. “He was able to move from a conversation with a mayor to a conversation with the president effortlessly, and to do it in a way that wasn’t full with a lot of egos.”

Brian Sanderson, a Mississippi lawyer who served on the same commission as a general counsel and then worked in the governor’s offices for several months after as the deputy director of the office of recovery, also had a positive take on Barbour.

“The governor built credibility after Katrina by giving an honest and clear assessment of the situation,” he said. “He didn’t sugarcoat the reality of what nature had dealt to us or false hope. He didn’t engage in any of the political maneuvers that other governors did at the time to gain an upper hand.”

Though Barbour received a lot of praise for his handling of Katrina — Governing magazine named him one of the “2006 public officials of the year” — he’s also attracted criticism. In September 2005, the New York Times raised questions about $568 million in contracts for debris removal that had been granted to Florida-based AshBritt, which had been a client of Barbour’s lobbying firm. Asked about the report, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office told me that the contracts for cleanup were handled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, not Barbour.

Quin Hillyer, a senior editor at the Spectator and senior editorial writer at the Washington Times, has argued that Barbour’s post-Katrina image has been elevated by a savvy PR effort, when in reality, the western part of the Gulf Coast has not recovered that well. “Has anybody actually driven along the Mississippi Coast from Waveland to Gulfport?” he wrote. “In terms of life, there’s almost no there there. Vast stretches of empty lots stretch undisturbed by hand of man. Oft-criticized New Orleans has recovered much better than the Mississippi coast.”

Mathews told me that there are a number of reasons why that portion of the coast has not been rebuilt, but the biggest issue remains that insurance on the coast is either nonexistent or prohibitively expensive.

SINCE GETTING ELECTED governor in 2003, Barbour fought trial lawyers and signed one of the most restrictive tort reform laws in the nation, but it’s his changes to Medicaid that he’s more prone to touting these days, as the nation turns its focus to reforming entitlement programs that are the biggest drivers of deficits at the state and federal level.

“We have made big savings in Mississippi Medicaid by management despite the facts that we have some of the highest nursing home rates and some of the highest hospital reimbursement rates in the United States in the poorest state in the country,” Barbour boasted to me.

As governor, Barbour moved aggressively to reduce the state’s Medicaid rolls by making sure everybody receiving benefits was actually eligible. One way he accomplished that was to require all beneficiaries to have in-person meetings each year to establish their Medicaid eligibility, with exceptions made for those in nursing homes or with severe medical conditions that made them immobile. As mentioned earlier, he also increased the use of generic drugs. And he shifted some elderly Medicaid beneficiaries onto the Medicare prescription drug plan when that became available. That action, however, merely transferred the burden onto federal taxpayers — something that wouldn’t be an option for him if he were elected president.

All told, his reforms did contain the growth of Medicaid spending in the state. Between 2000 and 2004, the five years before he took over as governor, combined state and federal spending on Mississippi’s Medicaid program soared 62 percent cumulatively, according to data from the governor’s office. In the six years starting with his first full budget year in 2005 and ending in 2010, it’s grown a total of 20 percent. In three of those years (2006, 2007, and 2010), Medicaid spending actually shrunk.

Barbour points to his record on Medicaid as an example of how to save money on entitlements through effective management of the programs. He’s also been a longtime proponent of having the federal government block grant Medicaid money to states, to give governors more flexibility to contain spending.

When asked how the politics of the entitlement debate differ from 1995 and 1996, he argued that this time, there’s a much broader understanding of the severity of the debt crisis.

“We were not sitting on $14 trillion of debt,” Barbour said of the 1990s. “We were not running $5 trillion of deficits in less than four years. The idea of that would have been unimaginable in 1995/96. I believe the American people today realize the risk of continuing on this unsustainable path.”

ANY SERIOUS EFFORT to reduce spending would have to start with addressing health care costs, which, in addition to retiring Baby Boomers, is the primary driver of entitlement spending. When I asked Barbour to explain his views on reforming health care, he touted his proposed health insurance exchange for Mississippi. Health insurance exchanges are an essential part of the national health care law, as well as the legislation Mitt Romney signed in Massachusetts. But he insisted his proposal was different.

“A lot of governors like me, before ObamaCare was ever even birthed, much less passed, I was advocating having a health insurance exchange in Mississippi based on a model that the Heritage Foundation shared with a number of states, and was adopted first by Utah,” he said. “Voluntary. No subsidies. Market-driven. Consumer-driven. Capitalistic. Nonprofit managed health insurance exchange, because my biggest group of uninsured are the employees of small business. If I had a voluntary unsubsidized health insurance exchange to serve as sort of their broker through a portal it would be very similar to the federal employee health benefit plan, so companies could buy through that and a) reduce their administrative costs and b) make sure that everything was tax deductible to the company, and c) make sure everything was tax deductible to the employee.”

Such an idea isn’t unique among Republicans — Sen. Tom Coburn and Rep. Paul Ryan proposed something similar as part of their own GOP alternative to the national health care law, and Ryan integrated it into his “Roadmap” fiscal reform proposal. However, there are several problems with the exchange idea. The first is that it would be a major concession to the liberal point of view, which holds that in the absence of government intervention, the market won’t function for individual insurance. The second is that, even if it starts out completely well intentioned, establishing an exchange puts the infrastructure in place that allows future lawmakers to incrementally build on it — adding requirements that insurers cover certain benefits, starting to offer subsidies to lower-income individuals to purchase insurance on the exchange, and so on. Before too long, such an exchange could end up just like the Romney/Obama model. I asked Barbour about this danger, and he dismissed it.

“Not only do I not worry about that as long as I’m governor, I don’t worry about that in Mississippi,” he responded. “You should know when Heritage came and made the presentations to us, they told us Massachusetts is going to make this mandatory and they’re going to subsidize it. Now that’s one way you can do it. But, we’re talking about something totally different. Voluntary. Unsubsidized. And no, I don’t worry about that at all. What I worry is that the federal government is going to force subsidies down our throats and they’re gonna increase the number of people on Medicaid in Mississippi by 50 percent and cost us $443 million a year to pay the extra cost of Medicaid because of it, which is what it would cost us in year 10.”

IN ITS 2010 Fiscal Policy Report Card for America’s governors, the Cato Institute gave Barbour a ‘C’ grade, noting he “signed into law a tax increase on hospitals in 2008 and a tax increase on cigarettes of 50 cents per pack in 2009.” It also criticized him for allowing general fund spending to grow 42 percent between fiscal year 2004 and fiscal year 2008, before the recession hit — while noting that he has since reduced spending. The same report gave Pawlenty an ‘A’ grade.

When asked about the tax increases, Barbour said that he repeatedly resisted attempts to raise the cigarette tax in his first term. Yet, he continued, “When I ran for reelection I said a lot of people want us to raise the cigarette tax for health care policy reasons, because we had the second lowest cigarette tax in the United States. And I said I’m going to appoint a commission the first year of my second term to look at this. The commission reported and I told the legislature the commission had recommended a cigarette tax increase, and I proposed we go from 18 cents to 42. The legislature actually ended up going to 60, which was the Southern states average. But again, I said 100 times during this, this is for health policy reasons, not for budget reasons.”

On the hospital tax, he said the Cato report was misleading, though he was quick to add, “I’m not mad at them.” He explained that before he was governor, hospitals had suggested that they pay a provider fee to cover the matching money that the states had to pay under federal programs. Yet in 2005, the federal government disallowed this arrangement. So eventually, the state instituted a tax to make up the lost revenue, which he signed.

That said, it takes much less time for political opponents to say Barbour “raised cigarette and hospital taxes” than it does for him to explain the complexities of state and federal health care financing, so this would be another criticism he’d face in a presidential campaign.

When I asked Barbour whether he thought it was possible to get the nation’s debt under control without raising taxes, he spoke like a supply-sider. “I don’t think it’s possible if you raise taxes,” he said. “You’ve got to grow revenue, you got to have economic growth, and more job creation. Higher taxes makes that harder….My own view is that low taxes are essential to generating economic growth. I am a Reaganite about that. Reagan used to say we can grow ourselves out of the deficit and the Democrats would snicker. Well, I can tell you this, we can’t spend ourselves out of this deficit. People laugh out loud at that. There’s no snickering about that. That’s a hoot.”

LAST YEAR, Mitch Daniels jeopardized his potential presidential candidacy when he suggested to the Weekly Standard‘s Andrew Ferguson that there be a “truce” on social issues while the nation deals with the emergency of the fiscal crisis. His statement and subsequent attempts to explain it triggered a fierce backlash among social conservatives, and Barbour himself took heat when he rose to his friend’s defense.

Throughout his political career, Barbour has drawn a distinction between his own views on social issues and their place in electoral politics. As governor of Mississippi, he’s signed a number of pro-life bills, including an informed consent law and conscience protections. There’s only one abortion clinic left in Mississippi, according to Americans United for Life, which reports a 60 percent reduction in the state abortion rate over the last several years. Yet at the same time, Barbour has deemphasized abortion as a major electoral issue. After winning the chairmanship of the RNC in January 1993, according to a New York Times account, he told reporters, “If you make abortion the threshold issue for Republicans, you need your heads examined.” In June 2009, he gave a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, in which he said the party needed to be welcoming to pro-choice Republicans. I asked him about the distinction he’s drawn.

“The distinction is the distinction of spokesmanship,” he explained. “When I speak about my record, it is a socially conservative record. I am very pro-life and have been consistently pro-life since [first running for office in] 1982….Having said that, elections ought to be about the issues that on are on the voters’ minds. If you’re smart in politics you want to be telling the people, ‘Here’s what I want to do to solve the problem that you’re really worried about.’ That’s what I think Mitch was saying. Not that there should be a ‘truce’ because we want to push this issue under the rug, but that we ought to run our campaigns based on these really important issues because these issues unite Republicans, hurt Democrats, and the independents agree with us by 2 to 1. If the idea of elections is to win, which it is, that’s just good political sense. So, if I’m talking as the RGA chairman, or the party chairman, or as somebody who’s just discussing how can we do the main thing — that is, elect a Republican president — Mitch is right, make the campaign about the issues that the public has foremost on their minds. Show them how we’re going to solve those problems. And let them see that they agree with us. It’s as simple as that. Politics is about addition and multiplication. It is not about subtraction and division. Purity is a loser in politics, unity is a winner in politics.”

He struck a similar tone when I asked him about gay marriage. He said he was opposed to it, and criticized President Obama’s decision not to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. Yet in the midst of explaining his position, he added, “The main thing we Republicans have to remember is to be tolerant of people who disagree with us.”

On immigration, Barbour is at odds with conservatives who seek harsher measures to combat those who are already here illegally. “After we get the border secured, only after we get the border secured, we need to talk about what is our policy gonna be on guest workers?” he said. “What’s our policy gonna be on H1B visas? What’s our policy gonna be on a lot of things that should be directed by the fact that we’ve got a labor shortage in this country over a period of time.”

WHEN IT COMES TO foreign policy, Barbour is reluctant to criticize President Obama. “I’m an open market, free trade, Reagan internationalist who believes in peace through strength, but I also come from the political school that in foreign policy and national security, politics all stop at the water’s edge,” he said. “Always believed that. I’m not going to shoot at the Obama administration about who lost Egypt. But I do think this — we have a place in the world and it’s a very important place in the world that we need to perform our role as the beacon of freedom, democracy, and republican form of government. I think that’s critically important.”

Yet he cautioned, “I worry about nation-building. It is one thing to go in for peacekeeping and restore order and stability and then leave, or leave a small force. I’m not comfortable with nation-building. I wasn’t when it was in Somalia. When I was chairman of the party though, you will see I never criticized Clinton, because I don’t think party chairmen in particular have any business talking about foreign policy.”

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 [2012] 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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