Republicans Have No Brand Problem

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In 1987, Haley Barbour and his partners hung out a shingle in Washington, D.C., doing business as the BGR Group. While their rivals up and down K Street were calling themselves senior counsellors or strategic communicators or global navigators, Barbour chose to self-identify as a “lobbyist,” which in the capital of world euphemism caused a ripple of arch surprise. The job of a lobbyist — unlike your own job, dear reader — is approved expressly by the U.S. Constitution, but it has never won a place in public affection alongside, say, the small-animal veterinarian.

Barbour was well prepared for the new opportunity. He knew national politics, having run deep-South states for a presidential campaign. He knew campaigns, having run himself as the sacrificial lamb for a Mississippi Senate seat held permanently by John Stennis. He knew Washington, having served as political director in the Reagan White House where he helped pitch the Mondale shutout. And he knew the Republican party from the ground up, having served as RNC chairman when the GOP took over both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

Barbour, not surprisingly, was good at his new job, which asked only that he persuade government officials to do things they might otherwise be disinclined to do. He was a trained lawyer and a natural charmer. It didn’t hurt that Barbour’s advice was dispensed with high courtesy and delivered in a soft accent double-dipped in Tupelo honey.

BGR Group grew rapidly and became one of the premier lobby shops inside the Beltway. Haley Barbour prospered. He rode around town in the backseat of large automobiles.

In 2003, powered by an afflatus of unknown origin, Barbour ran for governor of Mississippi. Surprising the political class yet again, he ran not as a revered public official or war hero or third-generation Delta planter, but as a “lobbyist.” His Democratic opponent was quick to particularize the term for low-information voters: Barbour had lobbied not only for Big Oil, nuclear power plants, and some more-or-less savory foreign governments. He had represented both Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds, which is to say that he had lobbied for Really Big Tobacco.

And so the gubernatorial campaign began for Haley Barbour, Man of the People. He ran hard and persuaded, or charmed, a majority of the voters to give him a shot. He defeated a Democratic incumbent and was sworn into office in 2004.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Mississippi coast with Biblical force: 231 people were killed; the state’s casino industry, all $2.78 billion of it, was wiped out; whole towns disappeared. Mississippians were devastated, and they needed help. They didn’t need a war hero, much less a Delta planter. They could probably use a governor. But what they really needed was a lobbyist.

Governor Barbour spent most of his two terms putting his native state back together. Even Democrats acknowledged his success. Barbour’s campaign to reclaim and recover the Gulf Coast became a textbook case in public administration, as also a model of political leadership.

With Mississippi back on its feet, and with both coastline and confidence restored, Barbour’s many admirers around the country urged him to run for president. He thought about it carefully, took the measure of what would be a long and taxing campaign, and decided finally to return to BGR Group, his reputation secured as one of the best political minds in the country.

Freeman: Welcome, Governor. Let’s clear out a bit of old business first. President Trump went all in for GOP gubernatorial candidates in Kentucky and Louisiana last month. Both of them lost. What lesson for 2020 did you draw from those results?

Barbour: [Kentucky Governor Matt] Bevin, who suffered from low job-approval numbers — at times, the lowest of any governor in the country — received far more votes than he did when elected four years earlier but lost by less than one-half a percentage point to a popular attorney general, who is the son of the immediate former governor. The other statewide races were won by Republicans by double-digit margins.

Freeman: And Louisiana?

Barbour: The popular Democratic governor, who often held himself out as a Republican, won by two points in a runoff. Again, the other statewide GOP candidates won. The GOP doesn’t have a party or brand problem in these states. The very close races reflect good Democratic candidates winning squeakers against GOP candidates who lost because of issues unique to them. The down-ticket races suggest large majority support for Republicans.

Freeman: Fair enough. What about the rest of the South next year?

Barbour: Trump will be strong in the South. The Democratic lurch to the left will be emphasized during the primaries and a far-left nominee, which is quite likely, would put much of the South out of reach.

Freeman: How would you assess North Carolina?

Barbour: A very competitive state, as there’s been large in-migration in recent years. The Democratic turnout has increased and will certainly do so again next year in the cities. Suburban women, once a part of the GOP base, present a challenge to Republicans. You can expect very competitive races for president, senator, and governor in North Carolina.

Freeman: How do you see Georgia?

Barbour: There was a large increase in turnout in 2018, largely driven by Liberal funding of African-American registration. Turnout of African-American voters significantly exceeded that of white voters and that will almost certainly be the case again next year. Suburban women, as in North Carolina, were once solid Republican voters, but they voted more Democrat than GOP in 2018. Georgia will likely be slightly stronger than North Carolina in 2020, but it will be more competitive than most southern states.

Freeman: Let’s take a look at the opposition. Break down the Democratic field for us. Which candidates have realistic shots at the 2020 nomination?

Barbour: The Democratic agenda, as espoused by the presidential nomination field, is extreme by U.S. historical standards. All of the Democratic candidates are under immense pressure to buy into this left-wing agenda, and it is unlikely that pressure will subside.

Biden has a large following, much of it a result of his being Obama’s vice president. It’s plausible that his support will erode as it becomes better known that Obama won’t endorse Biden. He’s been criticized for poor performance at the podium and not being sure-footed. He may not be able to go the distance.

It’s hard to imagine that the mayor of a small Midwestern city, a not very prosperous city, can win the nomination of one of the two major parties, but Buttigieg has developed a good following. If he wins the nod, it will be because he’s the fallback nominee, the least objectionable to many people.

Warren and Sanders are further left than many Democrats prefer but they appeal to the hard-left, which appears to be a majority of Democrats as the party is now constituted. The problem for each is getting around the other without driving away the other’s supporters. Warren should have the advantage, but her stumble on private health insurance offsets his age disadvantage.

The fact that nobody has pulled away explains the entries of Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick, who may be more of a factor than many people expect. But Bloomberg looms greater. His campaign is to have the money and the middle.

At some point, logic says there will be a hard-left candidate and a middle-left candidate, but it hasn’t happened this year.

Freeman: I’m guessing you’re voting GOP next year. So let me ask you about the likely Republican nominee. Trump got 8 percent of the African-American vote in 2016. He’s currently polling in the 8–10 percent range. But earlier this month two national polls — Emerson and Rasmussen — pegged his black support at 34 percent. Those polls are obviously outliers but is it possible they could be telling us something?

Barbour: The Trump economic policies have resulted in more jobs, higher incomes, and more and more successful small businesses for African Americans. I believe African Americans recognize these results and I believe Trump has potential to get more of their votes than he got in 2016. I might add that I got 8–10 percent in my first race for governor, and then 25 percent four years later. The same thing can apply to President Trump.

Freeman: Would it also be fair to say that one of the most mild-mannered and Twitter-averse members of Trump’s Cabinet, Betsy DeVos, could be helpful in this effort?

Barbour: Secretary DeVos is a strong supporter of giving parents more choice in where their children go to school. She believes that if we have low expectations for our children, they’ll meet them. She believes in setting high expectations and that our children, especially poor and underprivileged children, will meet them, too. I believe that message will be very attractive not only to African-American parents, but to Hispanics and others.

Freeman: I saved the worst for last — the politics of impeachment. You’ve seen it from both sides, offense and defense. You’ve lived through Nixon’s Watergate and Clinton’s perjury. When the dust settles on Trump’s impeachment troubles, what will be the net effect on his 2020 chances?

Barbour: Most Americans didn’t approve of the impeachment of President Clinton and I think it likely that most Americans won’t approve the impeachment of President Trump. Assuming he is not convicted, which I think is a safe assumption, this episode is likely to make Trump stronger politically and more likely to be reelected than if he had never been impeached by the House.

Freeman: Thanks, Haley.

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