The Anti-Obama

Could a wealthy, white, well-connected southerner really grow up to be president? Haley Barbour can’t wait to find out.

At the beginning of 2010, this no longer seems an outlandish analysis. The serious people have traded their talk of historical epochs for some very present politics. The public no longer seems as enchanted with the president; he disappoints the left and scandalizes the right. Sensing vulnerability, Republicans are simply looking for someone who knows how to win.

Haley Barbour is not well equipped for the age of Obama. Just look at the man’s office. The Republican governor of Mississippi keeps a large portrait of the University Greys, the Confederate rifle company that suffered 100 percent casualties at Gettysburg, on a wall not far from a Stars and Bars Confederate flag signed by Jefferson Davis. Then there’s the man himself. Rather than walking across the street from his office to the state capitol, he rides a hundred or so yards in the back seat of a large SUV, air conditioning on full blast. It’s a pity he favors the SUV because, as his friends will tell you and his appearance confirms, Barbour could use the exercise. The cofounder of one of the nation’s largest lobbying firms may or may not be the Good Ole Boy Republican Fat Cat his liberal critics make him out to be, but he certainly looks the part.

All of this has led some to wonder if Barbour has grander ambitions. “I think it’s highly unlikely that I’ll run for president in 2012,” he says. He’s being coy in part because the idea seems a bit outlandish and in part because he can afford to wait. No one thinks right now that a patrician son of the Mississippi Delta is the party’s best hope to run against Obama. But as Obama himself has already learned, a lot can happen in a year.

One key element of Barbour’s recipe for revival: expanding the Republican Party by reaching out to moderates. In the ’90s, he backed moderate candidates in the Northeast and Midwest and helped to elect moderate governors like California’s Pete Wilson, New Jersey’s Christie Whitman, and Massachusetts’s Bill Weld. He thinks the party ought to be doing the same thing today: “People are crazy if they think we win by getting more pure. We win by getting big.”

This pining for the past may not be the type of bold new vision Republicans are looking for. But it may be enough for Haley Barbour. When I went to visit him in Jackson, he showed me around his office, the one with the Jefferson Davis flag. As we toured the room, he stopped at a bookshelf and pulled down a large volume of Ronald Reagan’s published letters. Turning to the inside of the book’s back cover, he showed me a short note written in familiar scrawl under the presidential seal. It was dated Nov. 14, 1994, just days after Reagan had announced he was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was retreating from public life. It would be the last published note written in Reagan’s own hand. It was addressed to the chairman of the Republican Party, congratulating him on the Republicans’ historic showing in the 1994 midterms. That chairman was Haley Barbour, who couldn’t help but smile as he read it 15 years after the fact:

Dear Haley,

Congratulations on a great job for the Republican Party. I couldn’t be happier with the results. And please don’t count me out! I’ll be putting in my licks for Republicans as long as I’m able.

Barbour believes the Gipper, even now, has a few licks left.