Could a wealthy, white, well-connected southerner really grow up to be president? Haley Barbour can't wait to find out.
Haley Barbour is not well equipped for the age of Obama. Just look at the man's office. The Republican governor of Mississippi keeps a large portrait of the University Greys, the Confederate rifle company that suffered 100 percent casualties at Gettysburg, on a wall not far from a Stars and Bars Confederate flag signed by Jefferson Davis. Then there's the man himself. Rather than walking across the street from his office to the state capitol, he rides a hundred or so yards in the back seat of a large SUV, air conditioning on full blast. It's a pity he favors the SUV because, as his friends will tell you and his appearance confirms, Barbour could use the exercise. The cofounder of one of the nation's largest lobbying firms may or may not be the Good Ole Boy Republican Fat Cat his liberal critics make him out to be, but he certainly looks the part.
A year ago, when Barack Obama was inaugurated, the Serious, Responsible people who appear on Sunday-morning talk shows agreed that, if it wanted to survive, the Republican Party needed to stop letting men like Barbour appear as its public face. The election of 2008 was not just about parties trading off power. It marked the end of an epoch. No longer could Republicans count on the basic conservatism of the American people, the reflexive hostility to candidates who favor big government. The electorate had changed: white Reaganites and religious conservatives no longer held sway. Now the power lay in the growing Hispanic population and all those teeming masses of idealistic people, yearning for something cool.
The next great Republican leader wouldn't be someone who looked like Haley Barbour—chairman of the national Republican Party in the '90s, an insider's insider who has been involved in every presidential election since 1968. The man (or woman!) to lead the party out of the wilderness would have to remake and reform until the Grand Old Party was unrecognizable to its former self. That was the only equation for Republican revival: unrecognizable + cool + Hispanics + Twitter + being nice to gays + Facebook.
I went to see Barbour early last summer, when this formula for Republican survival still seemed to make some sense. True, there was already plenty of hostility to the president's proposed health-care reform and noisy tea-party talk abroad in the land. But the GOP hardly seemed a threat. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, the great hope of respectable social conservatives for the presidency in 2012, had just resigned the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association (RGA) after admitting to an extramarital affair. Sarah Palin had erratically resigned the governorship of Alaska. Even so, Barbour said, maybe the country hadn't changed as much as the Democrats and the media thought. Maybe the Republicans weren't so bad off after all.
"In politics," he told me, "things are never as good as they seem and they're never as bad as they seem." The Democrats won because they had a candidate—Obama—who "could sell Fords to Chevrolet dealers" and "charm the skin off a snake." And because the candidate had had a "romance with the press unlike any before, certainly in my lifetime." And then, of course, there was the most important reason—the reason Obama was destined to win all along: "It was the Democrats' turn."
At the beginning of 2010, this no longer seems an outlandish analysis. The serious people have traded their talk of historical epochs for some very present politics. The public no longer seems as enchanted with the president; he disappoints the left and scandalizes the right. Sensing vulnerability, Republicans are simply looking for someone who knows how to win.
For the near future, the task of winning belongs to Barbour, who took charge of the RGA in the wake of the Sanford scandal. In 2010, he will lead the party's efforts to win a majority of the nation's governorships. In these contests, the party hopes to adapt the model that worked in last year's Virginia governor's race—running a conventional conservative candidate in a campaign that plays up discontent with Obama's Washington. If it works, the Republicans will have their first solid record of revival, and Barbour will deserve a good share of the credit.
Mr. Fix-It for the GOP is a role Barbour has played with great success in the past. Many Republicans give him as much credit as Newt Gingrich for the Republican "revolution" of 1994, even if his contribution was mostly behind the scenes. He's one of few Republicans whose stature benefited from their handling of Hurricane Katrina. The effectiveness of Barbour's hustle (and his deep Washington connections) is evident to anyone who drives across the Pearl River from the Mississippi Gulf Coast—spiffed up with shiny new commercial ports and open-for-business casinos—into the sad, stagnant desolation of Louisiana. Traveling the country as RGA head, he has bucked up the quavering party, reassuring nervous Republican donors that the GOP's prospects aren't nearly as bad as they seem. The donors apparently like what they're hearing: the RGA starts 2010 with more cash on hand than it spent in all 36 governors' races in 2006, combined.
All of this has led some to wonder if Barbour has grander ambitions. "I think it's highly unlikely that I'll run for president in 2012," he says. He's being coy in part because the idea seems a bit outlandish and in part because he can afford to wait. No one thinks right now that a patrician son of the Mississippi Delta is the party's best hope to run against Obama. But as Obama himself has already learned, a lot can happen in a year.
Barbour is a Southern Republican: waiting for the right political moment is in his blood. He was born in 1947, in a Southland where, from Richmond to the Rio Grande, the Democratic Party was the only one that mattered. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower's Mississippi campaign called itself "Democrats for Eisenhower." In 1960, faced with a choice between the dreaded Republicans and the anti-segregation John F. Kennedy, a majority of the state's voters gave their votes to "unpledged electors."
By tradition, the Barbours, an old Mississippi Delta family filled with prominent lawyers, were Democrats. Barbour's father died when he was a small child, and young Haley looked up to his older brother Jeppie. In 1964, Jeppie returned home from the Army a supporter of Barry Goldwater and announced, "We're Republicans now." And that was that. It was the perfect moment to become a Republican in Mississippi. By the mid-'60s, Clarke Reed, the legendary Mississippi Republican Party chairman, was traveling the state making a simple argument: if Mississippi wanted attention nationally, it needed to make the Washington big shots compete for the state's favor. "I'd say, 'The only way we're going to be taken seriously,'" Reed recalls, "'is to get a two-party system.'"
Barbour spent much of the next 10 years trying to turn the South red. The work paid off: the Mississippi delegation played a pivotal role in the 1972 and 1976 Republican conventions. And in 1972, the truly unthinkable happened: two young Mississippi Republicans, Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, were elected to Congress.
Eventually, it was Barbour's turn. In 1982, he was presented with an unexpected opportunity to run as the Republican candidate against the state's esteemed Democratic senator John Stennis. Stennis was a Mississippi institution but also an octogenarian: "a senator for the '80s, not a senator in his 80s" was Barbour's unofficial motto. The young candidate's inexperience showed, sometimes painfully. Barbour was embarrassed by an aide's nasty remarks about "coons" at campaign rallies. But in reprimanding the aide, he only made things worse. As The New York Times recounted it, Barbour warned the aide that if he "persisted in racist remarks, he would be reincarnated as a watermelon and placed at the mercy of blacks." Stennis easily won the race—because he was beloved in the state, not because of Barbour's gaffe. But Barbour could see he still had a lot to learn about politics.
He spent the next two decades getting his education—mostly in Washington, mostly backstage. He served as White House political director during Ronald Reagan's second term and won election to the chairmanship of the GOP shortly after Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992. Barbour reassured Republicans that redemption was closer than they thought. "When I'd make speeches I would say, 'I think it's a great time to be chairman.'" Sure enough, Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution took back the House from the Democrats in the midterm elections of 1994.
The parallels between the 1990s and today should offer only so much comfort for the Republicans, Barbour says, particularly on the presidential level. The year 2012 won't be an easy one for the GOP. After all, "the predisposition of voters" is to reelect a president. At the same time, he cautions those who foresee a great, long liberal era to recall recent history. "After 1992 the press wrote, 'The Republicans are dead; there's going to be a long Democrat era.' And after 2004 they wrote, 'They're going to have a long Republican era.'"
That's why he thinks Republicans have an opportunity, even now, in what he sees as Democratic overreach. The Obama administration, Barbour says, is presiding over "the biggest lurch to the left in American political history." He believes that the health-care debate has focused the public's attention on the cost of Obama's agenda. "They know that at some point in time you have to pay the piper," says Barbour. "They may not be thinking in terms of the devaluing of the dollar and high interest rates and high inflation. But they just know it's bad."
One key element of Barbour's recipe for revival: expanding the Republican Party by reaching out to moderates. In the '90s, he backed moderate candidates in the Northeast and Midwest and helped to elect moderate governors like California's Pete Wilson, New Jersey's Christie Whitman, and Massachusetts's Bill Weld. He thinks the party ought to be doing the same thing today: "People are crazy if they think we win by getting more pure. We win by getting big."
This may alienate him from powerful doctrinaire conservatives, which could be tricky for Barbour—particularly if, as many suspect, he is aiming for higher office. In 2003, 21 years after his first, failed Senate race, he was elected Mississippi governor. He soon began contemplating a run for the presidency in 2008. He lacked star power, but the GOP field lacked a frontrunner, and Barbour's knack for political cycles made him wonder if there was a role to play as the indispensable Southerner in the race. But in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina transformed, and defined, his governorship—leaving him with the task of rebuilding the state's coastline. It also put a damper on Barbour's presidential plans. "I didn't feel that I could in good conscience say, 'I'm going to get us through this crisis,' and then pick up and leave to run for president," Barbour explains.
With some tinkering, his hypothetical 2008 campaign could be adapted to 2012. While grassroots conservatives adore Sarah Palin, much of the party's establishment fears and loathes her. In the event that she runs, or even hints strongly at running, some in the party might look for a more clubbable social conservative, like Barbour, to get behind in order to blunt her power.
A Barbour candidacy would, of course, be a radical idea, and not just because we're in the age of Obama. Between stints in government, Barbour made millions squeezing old contacts as a lobbyist for corporate interests. His record as a dreaded influence peddler was so inescapable that, in his campaign for governor, he tried to make it a virtue, arguing he could work his Washington connections on behalf of the state. But this is a tough slogan for a national candidate: a president who will work Washington like a lobbyist! Indeed, Barbour is the rare candidate whom Barack Obama, after serving four years as president, could run against as the Washington outsider.
Barbour is a realist, and many in the GOP, including aides to some of his rivals, say he doesn't really think he has a shot at the White House but simply wants to be a player. A 2012 candidacy could guarantee him a role as spokesman for the party's Southern conservatives. It's easy to imagine a scenario, for example, in which Republican nominee Mitt Romney, needing to shore up his ties to the conservative Christian base, chooses Barbour as his running mate.
Democrats should hope that Barbour really means to stay out. Not only because he may be a more formidable candidate than his caricature as a cut-rate GOP hack suggests. Rather, Democrats will count themselves lucky if Barbour's vision for his party—bigger, smarter but fundamentally the same—finds no more attractive champion than Barbour himself. It is true that the election of 2008 had a historic result—the first African-American president—and demonstrates how different the American electorate will look in the 21st century from what it was in the 20th. But great, sweeping historical change tends to move in uneven lines. The Reagan coalition won five presidential elections and was the dominant force in American politics for 25 years. It may still be strong enough to produce an anomaly.
This pining for the past may not be the type of bold new vision Republicans are looking for. But it may be enough for Haley Barbour. When I went to visit him in Jackson, he showed me around his office, the one with the Jefferson Davis flag. As we toured the room, he stopped at a bookshelf and pulled down a large volume of Ronald Reagan's published letters. Turning to the inside of the book's back cover, he showed me a short note written in familiar scrawl under the presidential seal. It was dated Nov. 14, 1994, just days after Reagan had announced he was suffering from Alzheimer's and was retreating from public life. It would be the last published note written in Reagan's own hand. It was addressed to the chairman of the Republican Party, congratulating him on the Republicans' historic showing in the 1994 midterms. That chairman was Haley Barbour, who couldn't help but smile as he read it 15 years after the fact:
Congratulations on a great job for the Republican Party. I couldn't be happier with the results. And please don't count me out! I'll be putting in my licks for Republicans as long as I'm able.
Barbour believes the Gipper, even now, has a few licks left.