Haley Barbour Dismisses Racial Controversies as a 'Charade'

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Philip Klein has a big profile of the Mississippi governor out in the latest American Spectator. The whole thing is worth a read, especially if you are interested in Haley Barbour's policy thinking on fixing health insurance markets. But it was Barbour's dismissal of the racial controversies his previous comments have generated as a "charade" designed solely by political opponents that caught my eye.

While it is absolutely the case that within the context of a presidential campaign everything that can be used to tarnish an opponent will be, and often unfairly, Barbour's cavalier dismissal of racial issues as "a proxy issue, because they don't want the election to be about public policy," "some charade about something else," and a "straw man to throw out" suggests he doesn't quite get why people say race is going to be an issue for him, should he be able to make it to a general election environment.

Race is a very tender subject in American life, and to dismiss the concerns of people who have genuine questions about the comments of a would-be president of the whole big, increasingly non-white country as little more than politicking is only to keep those concerns alive.

From Klein's report:

Barbour's chances of winning the presidency -- or even capturing the GOP nomination -- have largely been written off, and not without good reason. After all, he'd be a white guy from the deep South challenging the first black president, a dealmaker who was one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington seeking the nation's highest office in the midst of a fierce anti-establishment backlash. The "dean" of the Washington press corps, the late David Broder, recently branded the Mississippian a "a long-shot possibility for the nomination." In an appearance on Meet the Press in February, Barbour was asked about a Gallup poll showing him with just 3 percent support in an early survey of Republican voter preferences, and he quipped: "I didn't know my family was that big."

Yet there are also reasons to believe that his chances are being significantly underestimated -- at least when it comes to the GOP primaries. In a wide-open field in which all the potential candidates have flaws, it's hard to write anybody off to begin with, and that's particularly true in Barbour's case. As one of the party's most talented fundraisers, Barbour should have plenty of money at his disposal in any presidential bid. If his successful stewardship of the RNC when the GOP took Congress in 1994 and of the Republican Governors Association in the stellar 2009 and 2010 years are any indication, Barbour would run a top-flight presidential campaign organization. His network is extensive and he's beloved within the party. And in a party that has a tendency to nominate candidates who are seen to have paid their dues, he has as good a claim as anybody running. At the same time, he has a story to tell as someone who combines conservative views with demonstrated competence as an executive and two terms as governor.

"We can't make the changes to public policy that are necessary to get America on the right track without electing a new president," Barbour told me when I spoke to him in late February during a visit to Washington, D.C. for a governors' conference.

It's also clear that the policy emphasis will be part of how he'll respond to questions about the role of race in the campaign. "The hard left who would never vote for me want to make it a big issue," he said. "They want to make race a proxy issue, because they don't want the election to be about public policy. They don't want the election to be about Obama's policies. They want some charade about something else. And when you have a white Christian conservative Republican from Mississippi, the easiest straw man to throw out is race."

Read the full story in The American Spectator.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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