Barbour's Exit and a GOP That Ducks Races About Race

The Republican party has not typically feared how race will play for them in national elections

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Haley Barbour seemed like a good candidate for the Republican nomination in 2012--a charming and popular governor with a warm southern accent. Sure, he had his flaws--his stint as a major lobbyist, for one--but that's not why he dropped out of the race Monday afternoon. The real reason, Politico's Mike Allen says, is that Barbour was afraid a potential campaign against President Obama would become a "race about race." And that would be a race Republicans would lose.

If true, that would be a big evolution from the last few decades of party politics--much like when Republicans accused Democrats of exploiting gay rights as a "wedge issue" earlier this year. In 1980, Ronald Reagan launched his campaign amid waving rebel flags near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the infamous town where three civil rights workers were murdered. George H. W. Bush demolished Michael Dukakis with his Willie Horton ad; Bill Clinton had to have his "Sister Souljah moment" to distance himself from black Democratic supporters like Jesse Jackson. And Obama's candidacy was almost sunk in the primary by a his former pastor's controversial remarks on race. For the last 30 years, at least, race has played well for Republicans in national elections. The definitive quote on this "Southern strategy" belongs to Lee Atwater, an advisor to George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, who once said, as reported by Bob Herbert in The New York Times, "You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff.''

But apparently the GOP thinks the country has changed, despite Donald Trump's cruising to the top of early polls based on his birtherism and racially-tinged comments. "Barbour concluded," Allen explains, that his candidacy "would be a divisive campaign for the country, and a tough one for Republicans to win. Barbour hopes that now the election will be a referendum on the incumbent," not race. Slate's Dave Weigel's reporting echoes that. Though Barbour had put together a talented campaign staff, they "always had a tough job, although very few Republicans would say why it was so tough." Basically, Mississippi is just too southern:

"After all, their party is immensely strong in the South. Three of the last four Democratic presidents had come from the South. The problem with Barbour, some Republicans feared, was that there was just something about Mississippi, something that made swing voters more antsy than, say, they are about politicians from North Carolina or Georgia. They worried that voters who were disappointed with Barack Obama but had been proud of their votes for the first black president would think twice about replacing him with a Southerner who was tin-eared about civil rights."

Perhaps Barbour wanted to avoid comments like those of The Guardian's Michael Tomasky: "One wag on Twitter, cleverer than I, speculated that the problem was [Barbour had] raised most of his money in Confederate dollars, which aren't matchable. ... [Barbour] would have traveled about as well outside the South as sweet corn, as Liebling once famously put it."

Still, the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart is disappointed that Barbour chose to avoid a difficult conversation about race. Barbour's "departure robs us of what would have been one of the most interesting orations in political history. ... If he did well, Barbour could have delivered an address as powerful and important in Jackson as Obama did in Philadelphia. But if he didn't have enough fire in the belly to do even that then he's just done himself and the nation a huge favor."

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