Haley Barbour Tests the Waters
by Charles Lemos, Sun Jun 14, 2009 at 04:40:41 PM EDT
Ed Gillespie, the former Chairman of the Republican National Committee, calls Haley Barbour a "happy warrior who stands up for conservative principles" while Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal finds the current Governor of Mississippi "a political-turnaround artist -- the Lee Iacocca of party rebuilding" in crediting Mr. Barbour, also a former RNC chair, as "one of the unsung masterminds of the 1994 Republican revolution." Mr. Moore adds that "if Newt Gingrich was the four-star general, Mr. Barbour was the field marshal." Well, apparently, Mr. Barbour is thinking of adding Commander-in-Chief to his résumé.
Governor Barbour is raising whispers about a potential 2012 run at the Presidency with back-to-back trips to the early presidential voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire to headline fundraisers. The visits are ostensibly part of his duties as incoming chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Both Iowa and New Hampshire also have Governor's races in 2010.
More from the Associated Press:
If the Republican Party is in danger of being marginalized as a conservative, white male Southern enclave, is Haley Barbour -- the longtime Washington power broker and current Mississippi governor -- the best person to turn things around?
Many rank-and-file Republicans and party leaders say yes, as the 61-year-old Barbour prepares to ramp up his national profile this month with back-to-back trips to the early presidential voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Barbour will headline fundraisers in both states, but says the visits are part of his duties as incoming chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Both states have governors' races next year.
"I've told everyone I know that every Republican ought to be focused on governors' races in 2009 and the 2010 elections," Barbour said in an interview with The Associated Press.
A former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Barbour has emerged as a leader of his party's efforts to retool for the future. His allies believe he could be a formidable presidential contender if he chooses to play.
"Haley's unique in that he's a brilliant strategist who led the party and has also run in and won a competitive governor's race," said Ed Gillespie, a former RNC chairman. "He commands a lot of respect from rank-and-file Republicans, as well as the leadership of the party and many Democrats. He's a happy warrior who stands up for conservative principles."
Barbour typically sidesteps questions about his presidential aspirations, saying he will wait until after next year's elections to decide.
With his good ol' boy charm and a drawl as thick as Mississippi mud, Barbour at first blush might not fit anyone's idea of the standard bearer for a party looking to diversify. He's a former lobbyist who made millions representing tobacco and other business interests, even as lobbyists increasingly have become stigmatized by Democrats and Republicans alike.
But Barbour's political skills have been tested and proven in Mississippi, where he defeated a Democratic incumbent to become just the second Republican elected governor since Reconstruction, and at the national level, where he helped rescue the GOP during another low period for the party.
Barbour became RNC chairman in 1993 after Bill Clinton was elected president and Democrats held strong majorities in Congress. Led by Barbour and Newt Gingrich, another potential 2012 contender, Republicans rallied in 1994, claiming majorities in the Senate and in the House for the first time in 40 years.
The Republican gains that year were helped by the collapse of the President Bill Clinton's health care reform plan; President Barack Obama is making a politically risky attempt to reform the nation's health care system this year, with potential reverberations in next year's midterm elections.
Barbour left the RNC in 1997 and built a lucrative lobbying practice before returning to Mississippi to run for governor. He defeated Democrat Ronnie Musgrove in 2003 and was easily re-elected in 2007; term limits will require him to step down after 2011.
Barbour has governed as a conservative, which is sure to endure him with Republicans across the country. But coming from a state in the heart of the old Confederacy that hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976, his appeal to independents and Democrats is open to question.
Mr. Barbour self-describes as "a small government, rational regulation, low tax, free market capitalist." He certainly has governed as a staunch conservative in Mississippi cutting spending aggressively to balance the budget. He's not averse to raising taxes having raised taxes on cigarettes but while he claims credit for having fixed the budget problems "without raising anybody's taxes," local officials across the state complained that they were forced to increase taxes because some state expenses were forced down on them.
I will note that he is one of the few Republicans offering mea culpas. Back in January, Mr. Barbour told the Wall Street Journal that the GOP needs to "come clean and admit we did a lot of things wrong.""Corruption, out-of-control spending, enormous increase of the national debt under a supposedly conservative administration, no vetoes of spending bills that Ronald Reagan would have hit with a hatchet." He adds that the war in Iraq remains highly unpopular even among many conservatives. "Americans simply don't like long wars," he says.
He's also a Big Tent Republican which is a rare commodity these days.
There's a temptation after a loss like this, he continues, "to purify our party by running off the people that aren't with us 100% of the time, or the people who aren't social conservatives, or the people who aren't this or the people who aren't that." He says party purges like that would be catastrophic. "This is a time for the party to be figuring out how to multiply. Politics is about addition and multiplication, not division and subtraction." He fumes that efforts to evict moderate Republicans in primaries is counterproductive.
Still, I tend to doubt that the former lobbyist and Washington power broker can successfully navigate a path to the White House in 2012.