Haley Barbour Tells GOP: Apply Principles, Update Communications

The Republican governor who is also considered one of the three most successful national chairmen his party has had in modern times has some advice for the GOP.  In the wake of its losses November 8th, Mississippi’s Gov. Haley Barbour said the Republican Party should apply the principles of the Reagan era to modern issues, dramatically update communications capabilities, and “learn to say not only that we’re for something, but  what we’re for that helps folks.”

Two days after Republicans lost the White House as well as seats in the U.S. Senate and House, Barbour talked to me about the condition of Republicanism.  This is a subject on which the onetime Reagan White House political director spoke with authority.  In the wake of Bill Clinton’s election to the presidency in 1992, Barbour defeated four opponents and become Republican National Chairman.  Mobilizing the party’s financial base and media acumen, Barbour helped lead the GOP to a dramatic comeback in 1994 as it won control of the House and Senate for the first time in forty years.

Like Ray Bliss of Ohio (who became RNC chairman after the Goldwater defeat in 1964) and Bill Brock of Tennessee (who took the party help following Gerald Ford’s defeat in 1976),  Mississippi’s Barbour is widely regarded as one of the best chairmen of his party in revival after major losses.  Candidates now eyeing the national chairmanship tell me that they studied the terms of the “three B’s”– Bliss, Brock, and Barbour.

Barbour on ’08, McCain, and Palin

“Since World War II, no party has kept the White House more than an eight-year presidential term except once,” noted Barbour, who spoke to me by phone while driving from Jackson to Vicksburg, “That was in 1988, when the economy was generally in good shape and President Reagan was popular.  George H.W. Bush won after trailing [Democratic nominee] Michael Dukakis by 17 percentage points in polls and then ran a campaign that convinced the American people that Dukakis was unacceptable as President.”

He contrasted 1988 with the situation in 2008:  two long wars, President George W. Bush having very low popularity ratings, and what Barbour called the “financial cataclysm of September.”  John McCain, he concluded, “was probably the strongest candidate we had.  It’s amazing that he got 47% of the vote instead of losing 60-40 under these circumstances.”

 “The results are a tribute to John McCain as a person,” said Barbour, “and not a tribute to the McCain campaign.”  As for vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin, her fellow governor is a big fan.  Barbour recalled how the Alaska governor “added energy to the ticket with Republicans who were only going to vote for John McCain up to the point she was selected, but weren’t excited.  That’s why the left attacked her.”

Does Palin have a future in national politics?  “I hope so,” shot back Barbour, saying he hopes the Alaska Republican continues “doing a great job as governor — and perhaps as a U.S. Senator.”

What Does GOP Do Now?

Barbour firmly believes that the RNC he chaired from 1993-97 is now “the party, the franchise on the Republican Party of America.”  But with Democrats in control of the White House and both Houses of Congress, he added, “it’s very important to include the Republican governors and congressional leaders as part of the process.  When I was chairman, they were indispensible.”

Recalling his years as the de facto loyal opposition leader to the fledgling Clinton Administration, Barbour noted that Republican congressional leaders primarily had to fight bad policy, which, he believed, the new President amply provided them.

 “You remember,” the Mississippian told me, “Even before we had the ‘Contract with America’ for the ’94 elections, Clinton made himself very unpopular by pushing the largest tax increase in history, gays in the military, a healthcare plan that would have put one-seventh of the U.S. economy under state control, and a crime bill that was more gun control than crime control.”  The Clinton performance in 1993-94, he believes, was as much of a key to the Republican resurgence of ’94 as anything the party would do.

Turning to the present,  Barbour believes “it will be more difficult for us to come back as quickly as we did sixteen years ago.  The financial situation is very scary and when a lot of folks get scared, they can easily turn to government for answers.  And a lot of Americans are dissatisfied with the war on terror.  This issue turned off many suburban women and a lot of young people.”

Barbour concluded, “We don’t have to have every answer tomorrow, or next week, or next month.  We need to assess how the issues have changed, how to apply our proven principles to current issues.”

Although Barbour agreed that it has been twenty years since Ronald Reagan was president and constant references to him may not resonate with younger voters (“Like when our parents talked about F.D.R.”), the onetime Reagan White House aide said that “the principles he stood for such as limited government, lower taxes and a strong national defense should remain Republican principles.”  To summarize, the challenge for Republicans is to advocate these principles and incorporate a new set of issues and problems that face our country.  How does the concept of peace through strength apply to the war on terror?  How do free markets and capitalism relate to the question of ‘Can I make a living?’

“Republicans have never been good at this.  We say what we’re for, but not why we’re for it and why it helps the family and the community.  We’ve got to be better at telling our story and saying how products perform, that we don’t need more of something, just better of something.”

As an example of what he means, the governor cited the case of regulation of mortgage loans.  Going back to enactment of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, Barbour said that the measure “forced banks and financial institutions to make bad loans.  And then Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, driven by liberals, were forced to loosen up their lending procedures, as home ownership went up.  Well, not everyone can afford a home and these policies were setting up mortgage loans for failure.  Regulators should have been able to put a stop to this, but the policy flew in the face of sensible regulation.”

At the time loans to people who were unable to handle a mortgage were growing, Barbour noted, “there was poor regulation and there were too many regulators — Treasury, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and others.”  He said there was no need, as many liberal Democrats claim, for more regulation but better regulation.

Barbour strongly suggested that the next national chairman move swiftly and dramatically to deploy the Republican message through the most modern high-tech means of communication.  Recalling his days as chairman, he said that “high tech communication meant a satellite TV show and an internet site.  Now that’s old hat.  The Democrats are beating us in the area of communications technology.”  He specifically cited the party reaching out to what he called “Netroots — that is, grass-roots people on the internet

He also called on the party to rebuild its small donor base (“When we have the White House, we tend to rely on big donors”) and to “regain our rightful position as the party of ideas.  Democrats have an amalgamation of ideas, but Republicans have a common set of principles.  Once we re-establish new policies based on current issues and the values and principles we have always held, we will do well again.”

As he prepared to join the other twenty Republican governors at a conference in Miami, I asked Barbour if any of the potential candidates running for national chairman at the RNC winter meeting in January have called to seek his advice.

“Sure,” he replied, “But it’s not fair to give out their names.  Not now.”