Monday evening’s NationalJournal.com homepage said it all: “Paul’s In” read the headline over a picture of Rep. Ron Paul. Over an accompanying shot of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour: “Barbour’s Out.”
Let’s review the bidding as we head into our next presidential election. Paul, an 11-term Texas lawmaker who took his last presidential bid all the way to the Republican National Convention floor despite having a grand total of 53 delegates to Sen. John McCain’s 2,000-plus, is inspired to try for the White House a third time, at age 75. Donald Trump, an unapologetic self-promoter best known for his extravagant lifestyle and more extravagant comb-over, draws massive amounts of media attention on his first foray into New Hampshire. Sarah Palin, who quit after two years as Alaska governor and now has followed Trump onto reality TV, remains a potential GOP White House contender.
Meanwhile, Barbour, a politician who has gained respect and friendships on both sides of the political aisle, who served his party twice as a national leader, and who helped his state achieve a remarkable recovery after the double-whammy disasters of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, has decided he just doesn’t want the White House that badly. Should we be surprised? Maybe not. Should we be worried? You betcha.
(PICTURES: 2012 GOP Presidential Hopefuls)
It’s probably no accident that among all the Republicans active in the “invisible primary,” only three are current officeholders. And two of them are Paul and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. Only Barbour holds an executive position. While legislators can live on slogans alone—of the 30 bills that Paul has introduced in the 112th Congress, only five have cosponsors—mayors, governors, and presidents don’t have that kind of luxury. They have to enact laws, build bridges (literally and figuratively), create jobs, and manage disasters—and their effectiveness inevitably depends on persuading people who aren’t already supporters to go along.
Although Barbour shares much of Paul’s and Bachmann’s conservative ideology, he is their polar opposite operationally. As a governor, national Republican leader, and lobbyist, he spent his career getting to know his adversaries and finding common ground. In a recent interview, former Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana laughingly recalled a $500 campaign contribution that Barbour gave him when Tauzin was still a Democrat, and how it nearly cost Barbour his election as Republican National Committee chairman when a rival made an issue of it. Barbour saved face by arguing that his donation was “an investment”—one that paid off when Tauzin later switched parties. “I love the guy,” Tauzin said.
Tauzin was one of many veteran pols prepared to support Barbour had he run. To explain why, he cited the way Barbour used his savvy and connections to spark a remarkable recovery on the hurricane-battered, then oil-soaked Mississippi Gulf coast. After Katrina walloped the region with what Barbour described as “nuclear destruction,” Barbour mobilized the corporate friends he had made on K Street to provide emergency supplies and fill the coffers of the Hurricane Recovery Fund he created. He used his Washington connections to win millions in federal appropriations for rebuilding. He persuaded the state Legislature to change laws to help the casino business recover. Within a year after the hurricane, the state had gained 30,000 jobs, and rebuilding along the coast was well under way.
After last year’s BP oil blowout, Barbour was one of the Gulf state governors who participated in daily White House conference calls about containing the spill and providing relief for its victims. Unlike some participants, Barbour didn’t take a cooperative line with the White House during the phone call and then hold a press conference to blast the administration. In short, he put his constituents’ needs ahead of his own political ambition.
Word is that one of the key factors in pushing Barbour out of the race was his fear that his childhood in the Jim Crow South would be used against him, and that a challenge by a son of Yazoo City to the nation’s first African-American president would be caricatured as a racial showdown. That’s a shame, but it’s just a synecdoche for a larger problem facing serious political candidates. Accomplishments such as Barbour’s are hard to shoehorn into 140 characters. In a era of campaigning by tweet (which makes 30-second sound bites seem like doctoral treatises), there’s no room for nuance, no room for explanation, no room for anyone who practices anything but bumper-sticker politics.
In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry learned just how burdensome a complicated legislative record could be. In 2008, the presidential candidate with the shortest political record won. In 2009, Palin made a calculation that she would be better positioned for a potential presidential bid without a record as an officeholder than with one. This year, the Republican presidential hopefuls with the most extensive records in office, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, are—as my colleague Beth Reinhard has pointed out in this magazine—downplaying them.
No wonder the impresario of a show called Celebrity Apprentice figures he has a chance. As for us voters, maybe we all should be fired.
This article appears in the April 30, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.