Can Haley Recover?

December 27, 2010 7:26 a.m.

In the wake of Haley Barbour’s Jim Crow face plant last week various commentators are weighing in to take stock of whether it’s a bump in the road or the end of his hopes of running for president in 2012.

Back on Planet Earth, though, a different story can be told.

Let’s state it flat out. You have to be deeply, securely, and no doubt permanently encased in the DC cocoon ever to have thought that Haley Barbour was a serious presidential candidate. Really, people. Any number of things would have to change to make Barbour a remotely credible presidential candidate — starting with erasing the image of Boss Hogg from the cultural memory of every American over the age of 30. And that would probably be one of the easier tasks on the list.On first blush you might say, how is the Governor of Mississippi a creation of the DC cocoon? But the governor gig is just a recent flourish. Barbour made his career — and a very impressive one on its own terms — as an establishment Republican political operative and high-powered DC lobbyist. He co-founded one of the most powerful lobbying firms in the city — now BGR Group, formerly Barbour Griffith & Rogers. And he’s brought that high-flying lifestyle — sometimes literally — to the governor’s mansion in Mississippi, one of the poorest state’s in the union. Every elite journalist in DC knows Barbour — many of them socially and over a long period of time because as you can see from his demeanor glad-handing is a big part of the guy’s charm. And the same applies to pretty much everyone else from the city’s power grid.

With everyone in Washington knowing him, why shouldn’t he run for president? Everybody likes him. He’s had a successful career. He’s the governor of a state. So why not? What could go wrong?

There are substantive knocks on Barbour. But you don’t even have to go there to realize that the presidency is simply not in the cards. Do you see Barney Frank as a plausible presidential candidate? Even if you’re a big Barney fan, probably not because you recognize that a) he’s considerably more liberal than the rest of the country and b) even with social change being what it is a portly Jewish gay guy from Massachusetts with an irascible streak probably just doesn’t compute as a presidential contender. Turn the ideological and sectional hour glass upside and you’ve got Haley Barbour’s prospects as a national candidate pretty much down to a tee. In his bearing, mannerisms, appearance, accent and style of politics Barbour embodies a lot people’s caricature of the unreconstructed, good-ole-boy South. And the confederate flag signed by Confederate President Jefferson Davis near his desk doesn’t help either. As Newsweek put it in a profile a year ago, “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.”

Nor is it simply a matter of unhelpful idiom. A lot of pundits are saying that if Barbour wants to run for president he’ll need to be careful about how breezily he talks about race. But that’s like saying that someone with pneumonia needs to focus more on breathing. Maybe so, but it’s superficial advice. You don’t stumble into comments like that on the White Citizens Council movement by accident. The backbone of the modern Republican party is the white South and the areas of the midwest that are culturally part of the South — central Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, West Virginia, etc. They used to be Democrats; now they’re Republican. Barbour was joined at the hip to the people who ushered them out of the old party and into the new. Barbour is conservative Mississippian who grew up during the Civil Rights Era. This recent flap confirmed that he’s still very much of that time. To think someone like that would ever be a plausible presidential candidate in 2012 always required an extraordinary level of willful blindness.

And did I mention the part about being one of the top DC lobbyists of his generation?

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