Darman, Jonathan, Newsweek
Byline: Jonathan Darman
Could a wealthy, white, well-connected southerner really grow up to be president? Haley Barbour can't wait to find out.
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.
A year ago, when Barack Obama was inaugurated, the Serious, Responsible people who appear on Sunday-morning talk shows agreed that, if it wanted to survive, the Republican Party needed to stop letting men like Barbour appear as its public face. The election of 2008 was not just about parties trading off power. It marked the end of an epoch. No longer could Republicans count on the basic conservatism of the American people, the reflexive hostility to candidates who favor big government. The electorate had changed: white Reaganites and religious conservatives no longer held sway. Now the power lay in the growing Hispanic population and all those teeming masses of idealistic people, yearning for something cool.
The next great Republican leader wouldn't be someone who looked like Haley Barbour--chairman of the national Republican Party in the '90s, an insider's insider who has been involved in every presidential election since 1968. The man (or woman!) to lead the party out of the wilderness would have to remake and reform until the Grand Old Party was unrecognizable to its former self. That was the only equation for Republican revival: unrecognizable + cool + Hispanics + Twitter + being nice to gays + Facebook.
I went to see Barbour early last summer, when this formula for Republican survival still seemed to make some sense. True, there was already plenty of hostility to the president's proposed health-care reform and noisy tea-party talk abroad in the land. But the GOP hardly seemed a threat. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, the great hope of respectable social conservatives for the presidency in 2012, had just resigned the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association (RGA) after admitting to an extramarital affair. Sarah Palin had erratically resigned the governorship of Alaska. Even so, Barbour said, maybe the country hadn't changed as much as the Democrats and the media thought. Maybe the Republicans weren't so bad off after all.
"In politics," he told me, "things are never as good as they seem and they're never as bad as they seem." The Democrats won because they had a candidate--Obama--who "could sell Fords to Chevrolet dealers" and "charm the skin off a snake." And because the candidate had had a "romance with the press unlike any before, certainly in my lifetime." And then, of course, there was the most important reason--the reason Obama was destined to win all along: "It was the Democrats' turn."
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.
For the near future, the task of winning belongs to Barbour, who took charge of the RGA in the wake of the Sanford scandal. …