Why Haley Barbour Is A Serious Republican Presidential Candidate
Mar. 23 2011
The easiest job in political punditry is to laugh off Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. On the surface, Barbour is almost a caricature of a Southern pol. His delta accent is so thick you might think he was Billy Joe MacAllister jumpin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge in Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe.”
Mama hollered at the back door
“Y’all remember to wipe your feet.”
Pictures of Barbour show a hog-jowled, self-described “fat redneck” – though in person the newly slimmed Barbour (down 25 pounds) looks more like TV anchorman, Lou Dobbs.
Finally, there is the lobbyist thing. In the decade between his time heading up the Republican National Committee in the 1990s and his current gig as Mississippi’s governor, Barbour made millions representing the two industries most hated by the media – big oil and big tobacco.
All of this led the Weekly Standard’s influential conservative Bill Kristol to call Barbour a “yahoo.” Barbour, you see, is from Yazoo City, Miss. Yazoo City = Yahoo. Very original, Mr. Kristol.
But there are four solid reasons why Barbour could be the Republican sleeper in 2012. Let’s look at them in ascending order.
4. The Republican field, less than 10 months from the 2012 Iowa caucuses, does not have a front runner yet. Mitt Romney has troubles with evangelicals and small government conservatives. Sarah Palin has squandered her fame (though not her fortune) and now looks unserious. Mike Huckabee doesn’t want it … the telltale sign is that he has comfortably settled into his old overweight self. Newt Gingrich, though he imagines himself a Churchill in the wilderness, is past his sell date. Tim Pawlenty is trying to be all things to all conservatives but so far he is unable to convey much passion. Some deep part of Mitch Daniels apparently doesn’t want the job. Jeb Bush has the wrong last name. Chris Christie might be too regional.
3. Barbour is easily the most connected of all Republican candidates. He knows every governor, most legislators, all the fundraisers. He is well-liked.
2. He has performed well as Mississippi’s governor, both during the Hurricane Katrina crisis and in the everyday governor’s stuff of tamping down the state’s notorious tort bar, balancing budgets and promoting Mississippi as a place to do business. Barbour is, simply, a terrific salesmen for Mississippi’s business community.
1. He is the only Republican candidate who talks about economic growth as Ronald Reagan would have. When Romney talks about growth, it is in the white-paper language of the Boston private equity swell he used to be. Daniels and Christie have lashed themselves to trimmed budgets, and that’s mostly what they talk about, especially Christie. Fine as it goes – essential, even – but we don’t hear enough growth talk from either Daniels or Christie.
Last Friday, Forbes columnist Ken Fisher and I had lunch with Barbour at a Silicon Valley event. It was hosted by one of the Valley’s big CEOs. A small group of 30 or so attended, with a mix of recognizable names and up-and-coming entrepreneurs. (I’ve left out the names, because it would imply an endorsement among CEOs who attended mainly to learn more about Barbour. I can say that some were avid Obama supporters in 2008.)
While Washington punditry is quick to see Barbour and his state as backwater (see Kristol, Bill), the CEOs, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in the crowd took a different view. I talked to two Indian immigrant entrepreneurs who are building solar panel plants in Mississippi, and not just because of Barbour’s salesmanship or tax credits. They liked the complete package of business friendly taxes, regulations, a tamed tort bar, and a good supply of young engineers coming out of Mississippi State in Starkville.
“Are the Mississippi State grads up to your Silicon Valley standards,” I asked.
“Oh, yes. They are very practical, too.” Translation: Techies who build things other than social networks.
The Republican field for 2012 is wide open because no candidate, until Barbour, has made the consistent, compelling and credible case for economic growth. That case should be easy to make. It is simply this: All of America’s problems will get worse with 2% or less annual growth. That’s the growth America had in the first decade of this century. Actually, it was 1.8%, and sure enough, all of our fiscal problems got worse.
Say it loudly: America must grow at 3.5% or better to have any chance of transcending the fiscal messes, while providing a decent social safety net and securing our safety in a hostile world. That is the plain truth of it.
Reagan, inheriting the Nixon-Ford-Carter malaise, understood this. There is evidence to believe that Barbour, assessing the Bush-Obama fiscal disasters, gets it, too.
Barbour also gets another thing that is a core truth about American politics. The pro-growth candidate always comes off as the optimist. And Americans, given a choice, will almost always vote for the optimist.