JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: A lot of political pros compare the republican party’s prospects for the 2010 midterms with the republican revolution of 1994.
Back then, Haley Barbour was the chairman of the Republican National Committee, and he got a lot of credit for engineering the republican takeover of Congress. This year, however, at times the wheels seem to be coming off the RNC chairman Michael Steele’s operation.
Barbour is watching all this from a distance as governor of Mississippi. He joins us now to go one-on-one.
Governor, a simple question that’s being asked a lot in Washington — some people are saying Michael Steele should step aside. His chief of staff resigned last night. Some of his consultants have said, “We’re not staying any more.”
Amid all of this turmoil, does the party need a fresh start?
GOV. HALEY BARBOUR, R-MS: No. I mean whether the chairman ought to stay or not is the chairman’s decision. But does the party need a fresh start? No.
KING: Well, let me put it this way to you, then. With your experience then and now, if the RNC operation under Haley Barbour — let’s make that a 10, since you had such a great year for republicans that year… If that was a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate Michael Steele right now?
BARBOUR: Well, I’ve got sense enough that I don’t try to rate people. I work with them and try to help them be successful. I try to get them to help us be successful. John, I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night.
KING: It’s my job to ask, Governor.
Do you have any concerns at all when you hear big fundraisers saying, “I’m not going to give them any more money?” When you hear people like Tony Perkins on the Family Research Council and other social conservatives — because of some money spent at a risqué nightclub thing, don’t send them any money?
That in the end, come November, when you need that, “Get out to vote,” effort, that would have an impact, would it not?
BARBOUR: Well, of course, it’s concerning. And one of the things that remains, particularly for governors’ races, is that governors’ races have to be a little bit more self-sustaining.
We have 28 Senate races in states where the same day there’s a governors’ race. Normally, the governors’ race has a major responsibility, and absentee ballots, “Get out to vote,” that sort of thing; it’s very, very critical.
The party has usually played a major role in helping those governors’ races do that. We will be prepared if the fundraising for the RNC doesn’t go as well as hoped. And they’ve raised a lot of money. Now, let’s don’t deny that.
But if it doesn’t go as well, we’re going to have to be prepared to do more. We will be prepared to do more.
KING: I want you to listen to something Chairman Steele said yesterday in an interview with ABC. He was asked if he thought perhaps he had a slimmer margin to make mistakes because he was an African-American.
Listen to his answer.
VIDEO: Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. A lot of folks do. I mean it’s a different role for, you know, for me to play and others to play. And that’s just the reality of it.
But you take that as part of the nature of it. It’s not – it’s more because you’re not someone that they know, “I’m not a Washington insider,” even though I grew up here in DC. My view on politics is much more grassroots-oriented. It’s not “old-boy” network oriented.
KING: Is that right? Do you think Michael Steele is held to a different standard or has less margin for error because of the color of his skin, Governor?
BARBOUR: Look — you know — when you’re a fat redneck like me and got an accent like mine, you can say, “Well, they’re going to hold me to a higher standard.”
In fact, I don’t think anybody ever held me to a higher standard than I held myself. That’s the way I was raised. That’s what I was brought up to do. That’s the way it ought to be.
KING: Do you view Michael Steele any differently because he’s the party’s first black chairman or because he’s a black man? Do you view him any differently?
BARBOUR: No. No. I didn’t when he was running for — when he was Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, when he was Senator from Maryland. Feel the same way now.
I just don’t see that. Like I say, I don’t think that way.
KING: Let me ask you a question as someone who has worked for the party going back now more than 25 years. If you were Chairman Steele at this moment, with all the people saying the things they are saying — with your chief of staff having to leave — with your top consultants saying they can’t work with the committee any more, would you stay on the job?
BARBOUR: Look — every chairman of the party has his ups and downs. I was criticized when I was chairman for different things.
I don’t think it’s useful for me to critique any chairman now or any chairman since I was chairman. And I’ve not done that. I’m not going to start now. It’s just not useful.
KING: Help me understand. Give me your assessment of the political climate this year. You have the tea party out there. Some have said it’s a lot like 1994. Others have said the tea party and this anti-establishment/anti-politician streak going on out in the country is more like a Perot movement in 1992. How do you see it?
BARBOUR: Well, I think it is a little bit like the Perot movement. But it’s certainly not identical. But it has in common with the Perot movement that most of these people are small-government conservatives.
And when I was chairman of the party in ’93 and ’94 and Perot had gotten 19% of the vote in ’92, we worked very hard to get to know the Perot people, to make them welcome, to let them have a seat at the table at our party. And about 80% of people who voted for Ross Perot in 1992 voted Republican for Congress in 1994.
Now the tea party people are also small-government conservatives. And I think they recognize that we’re — the republicans are the conservative party of the United States. The democrats are the liberals.
And the worst thing that could happen is to split the conservative vote. I’ve told people I am sure that the democrats in the White House have worn out three sets of knee pads, down on their knees praying for the tea party to actually become a third party.
Because if you could have a third party that’s a conservative party, that’s the democrats’ dream — to split the conservative vote. I don’t see that happening. And I doubt that it will happen.
One last point — you asked about ’94 versus 2010. I will tell you, in the first week of April, the political environment in America is better for Republicans in 2010 than it was in 1994. Now it’s 7 months ’til the election, but as somebody who was at both places at those different times, I can tell you the political environment is better for republicans today.
We could have never had a Scott Brown victory in Massachusetts in January of 1994.
KING: And one last question for you. As you know, the economy will decide a lot about how people vote come November. The administration thinks it’s starting to come back. I don’t want to get into the fight about whether they deserve any credit or not.
But as somebody who has to administer a state, you’ve had to make some tough decisions in your own budget because the national economy and the Mississippi economy have taken a hit the last couple of years.
Do you see evidence that the economy is starting to come back in a way that voters, come the first week of November, might feel a little better about things?
BARBOUR: Well, I think in our part of the country, we’ve found bottom. I don’t think we’re going down any more. I don’t see anything that I would consider a real recovery or a strong recovery in the real economy or on Main Street.
I do think that — as somebody coined the phrase — some “green sprouts,” or “green shoots.” I see a little bit here and there. But at the same time, I realize we’re at such a low, low bottom that we’ve got much, much recovering to do to even get back to just a normal place, much less back where we were at the end of 2007.
So I hope that some of these pieces of good news will turn out to be the dominant news, rather than the clearly negative stuff that we still see in the real economy and on Main Street. I’m hopeful. But we’re not seeing any kind of strength in the economy today that would result in a recovery that would be recognized as such.
KING: Governor Barbour, thanks for your time.
BARBOUR: John, thank you.