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“Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s (R) press office sends emails of news clippings that have recently included jokes about former Attorney General Janet Reno’s gender and the tsunami that hit Japan, Ben Smith reports.
‘The off-color jokes, circulated inside and outside of Barbour’s government office, underscore questions about whether the governor is ready for the intensity of scrutiny that will come with leaving the relatively forgiving world of Mississippi politics.’” — Political Wire
Look, let’s just dispense with this stuff. Barbour is exactly who we think he is. If the press is going to get outraged every time he tells an off-color joke or waxes nostalgic for the Mississippi during the days of his pappy, this is going to be a long year. With Barbour, we know exactly what we’re getting. The best thing for the media to do would be to either treat Barbour as a Mike Gravel-style joke candidate and mock him endlessly, or to just ignore him. He will go away if they do. (Personally, for myself, I choose Option A.)
With that in mind, I’m not sure what the media’s doing with respect to Barbour. It seems clear to me that Barbour has little chance of getting the Republican nomination, let alone winning the White House. Barbour’s first-tier status seems entirely attributable to his having a hefty list of D.C. contacts. His national candidacy is a media-driven farce. The media does not ignore the negative tidbits about segregation and the like, but they don’t seem to persuade people like Smith to just ignore Barbour completely. The battle over Barbour’s candidacy seems to be taking place entirely within the media at this point–Democrats see him as about as much of a threat as Palin, and the polls suggest Republicans lack any interest in him. So, one might ask, where is this demand for Barbour-related news coming from? The only people who seem sincerely interested in Barbour info (I don’t count myself as sincerely interested) are people in the media, but the only stories that seem to get out there are ones that paint him in a terrible light. That’s right, even the only sector that’s remotely interested in the guy as a candidate is deeply ambivalent about him. I’m quite sure the rest of the country will follow their lead.
My heuristic for whether a candidate is serious is this: can you picture thousands of people spending days doing phone banks, knocking down doors and making big financial sacrifices to see that this person gets their party’s nomination to be president? So far as I can tell, in the South, those people are Palin and Huckabee, not Barbour. Barbour seems to me to be this year’s John Connally-style candidate, this year’s super-funded guy who just goes nowhere. Unless it’s The Donald instead.
Grape favorite Haley Barbour once again finds himself in the news for racial stupidity:
Gov. Haley Barbour recalled hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the old fairgrounds in his hometown of Yazoo City in 1962. “I was there with some of my friends,” Barbour told the Weekly Standard. “We wanted to hear him speak.”
Asked what King had said, Barbour replied, “I don’t really remember. The truth is, we couldn’t hear very well. We were sort of out there on the periphery. We just sat on our cars, watching the girls, talking, doing what boys do. We paid more attention to the girls than to King.”
A search of the King Papers at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute and the papers of David Garrow, author of the definitive biography on King, Bearing the Cross, failed to find evidence King spoke in Yazoo City in 1962.
My take on Barbour is that he’s more or less a Lost Causer and sympathizes much more with those who mythologize the Confederacy than those who would critique it. But as a guy who sees himself moving onto the national stage, he’s aware that even the appearance of believing in any of that will be completely fatal to his ambitions. The inevitable result is that the ass-backwards record on civil rights he’s cultivated to rise in Southern politics is now a liability, but he’s never really had to develop the sort of rhetoric and issue positions needed to play outside the Deep South. I think stuff like this needs to be seen as an attempt to innoculate himself against racial insinuations, but it’s quite obvious he’s unprepared on the one hand and has no feel for this sort of politics on the other. There’s an extent to which this could help him gain sympathy from Republicans in a primary race, but I find it more likely that a lot of Republicans will just decide not to bother with the guy and choose someone else. You can’t keep making mistakes like this as an underdog and expect the base to sprout up and support you if they have little interest in following you to begin with.
I think there’s a reason why so few Southern Republican politicians find themselves on national tickets. And before you start yelling “GEORGE W. BUSH WHAT DID YOU FORGET OR SOMETHING YOU IDIOT!?!?” I think Dubya hardly qualifies as a typical Southern politician. Texas ain’t Alabama, and despite his many, many flaws you can’t really argue that Bush was an old-school racial bigot–on immigration alone, he was to the left of pretty much his entire party (George H.W. Bush is even less of a good example, as a full-on transplant to the region). Back when the South was a Democratic region, it wasn’t terribly unusual for Southerners to find themselves on national Democratic tickets, what with Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton winning the presidency, and Al Gore, Estes Kefauver and John Sparkman finding themselves in the VP slot (though only Gore and Johnson won in this spot). Really, of all the post-Truman Democrats on national tickets, it’s notable that only Sparkman (way back in 1952!) could have been considered conservative on race. It’s just a reminder of the danger of stereotypes: there are multiple political traditions in the South, and the same party that produced the generally progressive views of a Kefauver or a Johnson could also produce a George Wallace or an Orval Faubus. But with the onset of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the Wallacite tradition became ascendant in the region, and after the Democratic Party became hostile to that tradition, it moved over to the Republican Party. To my knowledge, those other traditions didn’t really follow it there. Back in the day, Democrats were able to generate national politicians out of the South who could play on the national stage by picking politicians more out of the Kefauver-Johnson tradition, but I don’t see much evidence of a similar tradition in the Republican Party in the South these days. Dubya was, in my opinion, sort of a sui generis figure who was able to take advantage of a lot of political machinery due to the family name. He didn’t have to climb to the heights himself, in other words. Someone like Barbour had to, and what you have here is someone who is trying to find his way to the other side of the high wire without a net. I strongly suspect he’s unelectable–2010 mostly showed that I know the electorate less well than I thought I did, but Barbour’s racial gaffes are going to stick to him like flypaper, and I have to believe that a lot of people are simply going to dismiss the guy outright if he has that stench to him.
I happened to see this headline over at TPM:
Barbour Spokesman: Mississippi Gov. Is Not Racist
This is funny. Usually, politicians insist they’re not racist when they’re being accused of racial insensitivity of some sort or other. It’s a form of the straw man fallacy. For example: Governor Jones makes a joke that accidentally offends a minority group, gets angry when people notice and bring it up, and then holds a press conference in which he says, “I am not a racist.” Being racist is considered a terrible thing in our society, being called that is a terrible insult. Turning the debate in that direction usually serves to shut it down, because Governor Jones is a nice guy! No hoods in his closet.
This situation, though, is very different. It has to do with Haley Barbour saying nice things about white supremacist organizations. Angrily insisting he is not racist in the same fashion as the fictitious Governor Jones seems to me like a bad move because the quote is simply not ambiguous, and the question it presents really is, “Is Haley Barbour racist?” This differs from the hypothetical scenario I devised, where the question raised is, “Was Governor Jones’s joke offensive?” If Governor Jones had said, “The joke was not offensive,” the media will ask other people if they agree about this interpretation of the joke. So, Barbour’s guy saying this invites, rather than shuts down, further questions into the matter. In other words, this story is merely the beginning of the Barbour racism saga, and not the end.
In spite of the horrifying implications and amateur politics of this story, I don’t see this incident changing Barbour’s status as a top-tier GOP presidential contender. It should. I somehow doubt he’ll win the nomination, bet let’s not forget the regional pull of the South. If Huckabee does not run, Barbour is the only likely Republican candidate from the South, and Mike Huckabee’s better-than-expected 2008 performance can be attributed in part to him being the only viable white Southern guy in contention. The tribal currents of the region are what they have always been.
This story reminds me of this:
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