The Delusions of a Southern Republican Presidential Aspirant & His Republican Base

Within the eulogies of Haley Barbour’s still-born presidential campaign are two shocking bits of analysis. First, this from Jonathan Martin at Politico:

Barbour officials dismissed his dismal showing in early polls as a mere product of lack of name identification, but some GOP activists who heard the governor speak on some of his recent trips said they weren’t convinced he was connecting.

At a moment when the loudest and most provocative voices in the GOP are drawing most of the attention and presidential candidates are scrambling to get in line with a base demanding ever bloodier red meat, Barbour showed no inclination to accommodate.

He is a conventional Republican and was offering conventional rhetoric about President Obama’s policy weaknesses.

The “Barbour officials” referenced by Politico were probably correct in not being too worried about his current low polling numbers. A candidate without much name ID in a weak field still has time to make up a lot of ground if he can put together a good operation.  Barbour—a former RNC chair and current governor with administrative skills and a strong fundraising network from which he could amass the needed resources—would probably have been able to put together a sound operation.

But the observation about not delivering sufficiently red enough should give one pause; how scary has the Republican party become when a conservative governor from Mississippi isn’t sufficiently conservative to satisfy the ideological demands of the Republican base?

We’re also told this morning that some smart Republican operatives felt Barbour had a path to the nomination. He may have, but I’m skeptical that anyone will win the nomination without paying fealty to the extreme right of the GOP’s electorate, and as Politico pointed out, Barbour—unlike, I should add, Pawlenty and Romney—was uncomfortable throwing the snarling tea party masses the rancid flesh they crave.

But even if he had won the nomination, some of these Republican operatives were savvy enough to know that Barbour would be doomed against Obama. It’s bad enough he looks like this and sounds like him. But sheesh, it hadn’t occurred to anyone that being a corporate lobbyist may be a tad distasteful to the average swing voter, even for someone without the looks, sounds and personal background of Haley Barbour? Add in the fact that he lobbied on behalf of the Mexican government for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and the idea that he could get elected president is ludicrous.

It’s true, as a professor quoted in the HuffPo piece points out, that being from certain parts of the country almost instantly eliminates one from contention from president:

Joseph Parker, a political science professor recently retired from the University of Southern Mississippi who has followed the governor’s career closely…said that after Utah with its Mormon population, Mississippi would be second as “the longest shot to be a launching pad” to the presidency. While Bill Clinton came out of Arkansas, Parker noted, it was by way of Georgetown, Yale and Oxford.

Regional identity is an important aspect to a presidential candidate, and must often be supplemented or mitigated by other biographical facts. That Clinton came from Arkansas helped him in the general electorate, because while Arkansas was still at that time a Democratic-leaning state in close federal elections, being from Arkansas made it a little harder to fit in to the “Effete Northern Liberal” caricature developed for Republicans so effectively by the father of Republican culture war elections, Lee Atwater. But on the other hand, as professor Parker points out, Clinton’s pedigree included elite international institutions, to which I’d add his involvement on George McGovern’s presidential campaign. McGovern’s campaign was formative for many of those who became an influential cadre of American liberals who rose to prominence in the 1980’s and Bill and Hillary Clinton were tight with this group. With his background in the upper reaches of the meritocracy and his connections among the Democratic party’s liberal wing, Clinton call on numerous liberal power brokers who assisted him in getting sufficient support among the Democratic base to secure the nomination.

At the same time, being from a socially conservative Southern state was an asset for Clinton in the general election.  After losing huge with nominees from very liberal Minnesota and Massachusetts, a nominee from Arkansas was a bit of an antidote to the caricature of liberals employed by Atwater.  Since Nixon the Republicans had held on to the areas that had been GOP strongholds since the Civil War: Northern New England—Bush beat Dukakis by four points in Vermont and by twenty-six in New Hampshire—the non-Scandinavian Midwest from which the GOP was created, and the then-not-as-heavily-Latino Sun Belt, with its wealthy retirees, Goldwaterites and defense industry employees. When the Republicans held on to those areas–from 1968 through 1992 the Republicans won California, Colorado, Illinois, Vermont and New Hampshire in every election–they could win by adding most or all of the former states of the Confederacy.  But by 1992 the demographics were changing and the cultural battlefield was changing, and the Republicans’ federal base was shifting to the South. In 1992 Clinton’s international and elite background enabled him to connect with socially liberal and union voters outside the South and he won California, split the Mountain West, won all of the industrial Midwest and all of New England.  Meanwhile, his Arkansas roots enabled him—and VP candidate Al Gore—to win not just their home states of Arkansas and Tennessee, but also the border states of Missouri and Kentucky, and the Deep South states of Georgia and Louisiana.

Haley Barbour had the regional problem of Clinton in coming from a state that much of the country views with condescension. But unlike with Clinton, it would have given Barbour no electoral college advantages. Barbour being from Mississippi in a general election is more akin to John Kerry or Michael Dukakis being from Massachusetts. Kerry’s regional identity helped him win states like Maine and Connecticut that now have to be locks for a national Democrat, while Barbour’s regional identity would probably have helped him win states like Louisiana, Tennessee and Clinton’s home state of Arkansas, which now have to be locks for a Republican to be competitive nationally. But unlike Kerry—a decorated war hero—Barbour has nothing in his background that plays against the coarse stereotypes that have dominated America’s cultural shorthand since the late 1960’s.

The Republicans went after Kerry’s war record in 2004 because, in the public mind, it was the part of his background that played against type. Haley Barbour has nothing in his personal background that plays against type for someone who could conceivably win the Republican presidential nomination. Rather, everything about Haley Barbour—his cultural identity, his ridiculous claims about the racial milieu in which he was raised, his background as a corporate lobbyist–all play in to the negative views of the voters and states the Republicans would need to win. That despite all of this Barbour isn’t sufficiently conservative for the Republican primary base, while at the same time Barbour and many around him took such a long time so realize he couldn’t win a general election, is yet more evidence of the disconnect from reality that’s occurred within the Republican party.

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