Why Barbour's Civil Rights Remarks May Not Kill a White House Run

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Haley Barbour is in hot water for saying nice things about a pro-segregation group he knew in his hometown in the 1960s. The Citizens Council wasn't as bad as the Ku Klux Klan, Barbour said, apparently not adding that it was very bad because it was anti-black. (Barbour has since called the council and segregation "indefensible.") What the Mississippi governor said is damaging, but it's not disqualifying for a potential presidential bid.

The scandal is missing four elements that help kill political careers.

First, there's no audio or video of Barbour's remark. Print quotes don't carry the same punch that words do when you hear or see someone saying them. For example, Rev. Jeremiah Wright's fiery comments first surfaced in the national press in a February 2007 Rolling Stone profile of Barack Obama, but it wasn't until March 2008 that America came to know Wright and Obama was forced to make a major speech on race. What changed? Video of Wright emerged saying much the same that he did in Rolling Stone story.

Second, the scandal isn't timely. Simply put: Barbour made his gaffe before possibly announcing he'll run for president, well before the GOP primary season, and literally years before the general election. Time will help voters forget about this ugly event and let Barbour reintroduce himself.

In addition, Barbour was talking about his opinion of civil rights as a young man more than 40 years ago. Should he choose to ask the country to vote for him, Barbour can tell a story of redemption: Admit the error of his youth (the sin), apologize (repent), and demonstrate how he's a different, better man that he was (reach salvation).

Third, the story doesn't have legs -- yet. The remarks have set off a fishing expedition by journalists and political hacks to find more damaging history about Barbour and race. Until and unless more dirt is found, this will be a stain on Barbour's reputation but he may escape being characterized as a racist. (That looks less likely now that we've discovered a racist joke he made in 1982 and see that he has a fuzzy memory of his history with blacks.)

Fourth, there's no offended GOP primary voting constituency. Would Barbour lose the support of all those black Republicans or veteran civil-rights marchers? Some cultural moderates may be turned off by him, but it's hard to argue that lay Republicans would never consider voting for him now. Beltway derision certainly doesn't hurt a Republican running for his party's nomination -- in fact, it almost always helps among the base that loves candidates who are hated by the media, e.g. Sarah Palin.

We don't know if Barbour will run for president. It may turn out this gaffe hurts the GOP more than Barbour in a way: Republicans across the board will now be asked what they think of Barbour's remarks, and then Rand Paul's about the Civil Rights Act, and then Bob McDonnell's "Confederate History Month" proclamation that left out slavery, and so on. Each time a Republican steps in it over race, the GOP's stereotype hardens as an old, white, insensitive -- even intolerant -- party that looks and sounds less like the generation of Americans who'll vote more and more in decades to come.

Thumbnail image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Justin Miller was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 to 2011. He is now the homepage editor at New York magazine. More

Justin Miller was a associate editor at The Atlantic. Previously he was an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics, a political reporter in Ohio, and a freelance journalist.
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