One of the Republican Party’s biggest winners in ’07 says that it’s good for Democrats when campaigns are about emotion, but campaigns “about issues and policy” are good for Republicans.
Fresh from his handsome 58% re-election as governor of Mississippi and a week before he named Rep. Roger Wicker to the Senate seat that Trent Lott recently resigned, Haley Barbour spoke to us about the GOP’s chances in ’08, handicapping the Democratic and Republican presidential pictures, and his own experience in the Magnolia State grappling with issues from taxes to health care.
Looking ahead to the ’08 national elections, Barbour said, “When campaigns are about issues and policy, it’s good for Republicans. When campaigns are about emotion, it’s good for Democrats. So in my campaigns here and when I was chairman of the party, we tried to make the campaigns about things that were important to people: the economy, healthcare, national security, energy and the environment.”
Recalling his stint as Republican national chairman from 1993-97, the 60-year-old Barbour spoke about being the top non-congressional spokesman for the opposition party when then-President and Mrs. Clinton offered the “HillaryCare” program that would have vastly enhanced the government hand in healthcare.
“A lot of Republicans said, ‘We ought to just be against it,’” Barbour told us, “I took the position—and believed then and believe now—we couldn’t pretend there wasn’t a problem, there was a problem. They just had a bad solution that for most Americans would make their healthcare worse and not better, and probably for most Americans it would have cost more, and they would have gotten less in return.”
“I can remember working with [late liberal Rhode Island Republican Sen.] John Chafee and [former moderate Minnesota Republican Sen.] David Durenberger, who are not nearly as conservative as I am, but who recognized there were some serious policy flaws in the ClintonCare proposal,” Barbour said. “And we proposed things that we thought ought to be done. We didn’t just say ‘We’re against this,’ and I think that’s important for Republicans. You’ve got to let people know why you’re for it and how it will help their families and their communities.”
Pointing out that this is how he won two terms as Mississippi’s second Republican governor since Reconstruction, Barbour emphasized, “That’s what I think Republican candidates ought to do—to run only, or all for ideas, and they’ve got to be prepared to challenge the ideas of the other side.”
No Taxes—and He Meant It!
Political pundit and author M. Stanton Evans wrote four decades ago that “cutting taxes is the gold standard of politics,” and Barbour fiercely agrees. In his words, “I told people a few thousand times when I was running for governor [in 2003, against Democratic incumbent Ronnie Musgrave], I was against raising anybody’s taxes. And I meant it.”
As governor and facing a Democratic-ruled legislature that clearly was bent on raising taxes, Barbour recalled, “I felt like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike—that if I agreed to any tax increase, before you know it, the legislature would, a week later, pass another tax increase and before it was over, they’d want seven taxes increases if I caved on any one. The second year I was governor, the House passed a cigarette tax increase, which, of course, was very popular and, within a week—this is before the Senate acted—they’d passed literally $55 million of fee increases. And then I said that I would veto that, too. And, of course, the Senate never even took them up.”
The end results of holding the line on taxes and spending, observed Barbour, are that “personal income has risen about 20% in four years and there is record employment in Mississippi today, and the number of people working is some 50,000 more than when I became governor. In fact, under the previous governor, we had a net loss of 38,000 jobs. In my administration, we’ve gained about 50,000, and importantly, very often we are losing low-skill, low-wage jobs and replacing them with higher-skilled, higher-wage jobs such as Toyota and General Electric. Where there’s automotive aerospace, defense industry technology and the like, they’re working. But we’re also making more money because we’re bringing in higher-skilled, better-paying jobs.”
Barbour also attributes the refreshed business climate in Mississippi to “tort reform” and “getting control of our budget.” In his words, “businesses don’t want to go to a place where they think they’re going to have to raise taxes. They don’t want to go some place where they think the state can’t keep its promises because it’s in financial trouble.”
Any discussion of Mississippi these days comes back to Katrina and the state’s response to the 2005 hurricane that was the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. While Barbour himself has lobbied hard and received federal relief assistance for the disaster, he has convinced business to invest in a state that has suffered a labor shortage on the Mississippi Gulf Coast since three months after Katrina. People around the world, the governor told us, “saw Mississippi and Mississippians in a different light. They saw the spirit and character of our people in the wake of the hurricane and what they saw were strong, self-reliant people who weren’t looking for somebody to blame.”
“Mississippians aren’t into victimhood,” said Barbour. “Our people got knocked down flat. The next day they got up, hitched up their britches and went to work.” Noting that his state suffered from a poor reputation “all of my life—some of it deserved, some of it not deserved”—he proudly maintained that Mississippi after Katrina has new luster and that “a lot of these big companies are giving Mississippi a second look. I honestly believe some of them wouldn’t have really considered us except for what they saw after Katrina.”
Looking to ’08
The onetime Reagan White House political operative and former state and national party chairman returned to the topic of ’08 and the presidential election.
Noting that his state has gone solidly for the Republican presidential nominee since 1980, Barbour feels that any “Republican nominee would carry Mississippi over Sen. Clinton or Sen. Obama or Sen. Edwards or anybody else in that field, but I won’t underestimate them.” Barbour warned, “I think it would be very foolish to underestimate Mrs. Clinton.
Obviously, Sen. Obama has got a big wind at his back right now. But to me, the Democratic nomination looks more typical of Republican presidential nominations. You’ve got a genuine front-runner, Mrs. Clinton, and you got a couple of substantial candidates who are nipping at her heels and usually when that happens on the Republican side, the front-runner loses a couple of early primaries, or caucuses, but ultimately wins the nomination. And I think that’s the most likely outcome for the Democrats. But, I mean, who knows?”
“I have felt like, during the campaign, until recently, that Obama and Edwards have been helping Mrs. Clinton as she tries to position herself for the general election,” said Barbour. “Obama runs to the left of her and Edwards runs to the left of Mao Zedong.”
Barbour has not endorsed any Republican for President and knows all the major candidates because “most of them first ran for office when I was national chairman or served with me as governor.” One exception, we noted, was Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation Barbour vigorously opposed as national party leader. Of the legislation and the Arizona senator, Barbour said with a laugh: “[The law] is terrible, but McCain isn’t. While he and I don’t agree on campaign finance reforms, I think a lot of him. But I’m not really leaning one way or the other.”