Governor Barbour

February 3 , 2009

The Republican Revival Will Start in the States

Governor Barbour, former RNC chairman, says the party will again have to sell ideas, not access.

The Wall Street Journal

Haley Barbour has a message for Republicans still dispirited by the November elections: "We've been in a lot worse shape than this. . . . When I first started working in politics during the Watergate era only 16% of Americans identified themselves as Republicans." He recalls one incident in the mid 1970s when "Mary Louise Smith, the chairman of the party, appointed a committee to change the name of the party. You can't get much lower than that."

That doesn't mean the Grand Old Party will storm back into power in 2010 and 2012. "We shouldn't kid ourselves. Republicans have a whole lot of work to do to win back voters who've fled the party. I think the brand damage is much worse than in 1992," is his sobering assessment.

Mr. Barbour is a political-turnaround artist -- the Lee Iacocca of party rebuilding. He took over the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee in 1993 during another one of those low points. George H.W. Bush had just mustered 38% of the vote and lost the White House to Bill Clinton. Mr. Barbour recounts that the political wise men all agreed that 1992 was a realigning election, that the GOP had become a regional party of the South, that the conservatives were devoid of ideas, and that the era of Reaganism was over.

Not quite. Two years later the GOP stormed back and Mr. Barbour was one of the unsung masterminds of the 1994 Republican revolution. If Newt Gingrich was the four-star general, Mr. Barbour was the field marshal.

As we talk at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., I can't help noticing that he appears to have shed a few pounds in the last few years. Could it be in preparation for a presidential run? "Hail no," he retorts in his trademark southern drawl. He self-deprecatingly informs me that "the American people aren't likely to ever elect a former Washington lobbyist as president."

Perhaps not, but that didn't stop him from winning two terms as governor of Mississippi and from racking up a successful record of achievement. He's cut taxes, put the state budget in Jackson on a diet, passed one of the boldest tort reform laws in the nation, and helped bring thousands of new jobs into the state that ranks by many measures as America's poorest. He gets universal accolades for his handling of Hurricane Katrina, which obliterated whole regions of Mississippi. In contrast to Louisiana, which captured all the media attention because the botched recovery effort there, in Mississippi the reconstruction and relief efforts were a case study in government professionalism and, as he puts it, "harnessing the power of the private sector in a time of crisis."

"I am a small government, rational regulation, low tax, free market capitalist. And I'm going to be one even if I'm the last one!" Mr. Barbour declares.

He then offers a sobering fact of political history: "We need to understand that only once since 1896 has a party that took the White House not held on for at least two terms, and that was when Reagan beat Jimmy Carter. So the odds are stacked against us." Message: Brace yourself for eight years of President Barack Obama.

One of his biggest worries is that voters have lost confidence in Reaganite free-market principles. "The last few times that we've lost elections, it has not been because voters changed their mind about our policies, it's been because they changed their mind about us," he explains. "They decided that we hadn't adhered to the policies and principles that they had thought they were voting for during that election."

That was certainly true after George H.W. Bush raised taxes in 1990 and then in the 2006 bloodbath, when Republicans were punished for their reckless overspending.

Now the problem may be deeper: "Right now a lot of people that have voted for us repeatedly are not so sure about free-market capitalism. They're scared. They don't know if they're going to have to work until they're 80, they don't know if they're going to send their children to college, they don't know if they're going to lose their business or job." So he fears that "right now the only answer they know is government. The only place they know to turn that can help them is government."

This seems overly pessimistic to me, but we both agree that Republicans haven't exactly done much to disabuse voters of this sentiment. In 2008 the GOP became the party of federal bailouts and other socialistic solutions to the financial meltdown. Most voters don't fully understand why the stock market and economy collapsed this year, says Mr. Barbour, "but they do know it happened on our watch, and so we get the blame."

As with any rehab process, the first step for a Republican comeback, he argues, is to "come clean and admit we did a lot of things wrong." Like what? He quickly rattles off the misdeeds: "Corruption, out-of-control spending, enormous increase of the national debt under a supposedly conservative administration, no vetoes of spending bills that Ronald Reagan would have hit with a hatchet." He adds that the war in Iraq remains highly unpopular even among many conservatives. "Americans simply don't like long wars," he says.

There's a temptation after a loss like this, he continues, "to purify our party by running off the people that aren't with us 100% of the time, or the people who aren't social conservatives, or the people who aren't this or the people who aren't that." He says party purges like that would be catastrophic. "This is a time for the party to be figuring out how to multiply. Politics is about addition and multiplication, not division and subtraction." He fumes that efforts to evict moderate Republicans in primaries is counterproductive.

Wait, I say, aren't the big spending Republicans who act like Democrats -- people like Ted Stevens of Alaska or Jerry Lewis of California -- the people contaminating the GOP brand? His view is that Republicans need to elect a lot more moderates from the Northeast to regain operating majorities.

Mr. Barbour is fanatical about the need for the GOP to "to do the hard work to build strong and self-reliant" state and local chapters of the party that are in such disrepair. "Now is our chance when we're out of power to build back up from the bottom, to have a participatory, inclusive process for letting people get involved in our party. Barack Obama proved something that I've seen time and time again: if you'll give people a chance to participate in politics they'll knock your door down. And the Democrats did a whole lot better job of that than us this time."

Another worrisome trend he mentions is the youth vote. "We've got young people who voted for Obama by better than a 2-to-1 margin. The data is very clear, that when people vote in their first two presidential elections for the same party, more than 80% of those people are going to stay with that party for the rest of their life, barring some big event that changes it."

This gives the GOP four years to learn to communicate with the iPod generation. The party, he says, must figure out how to tap new media and new messaging to reach out and touch 20-somethings.

He also advises that the party figure out in a hurry how to close the money gap. Democratic money swamped not just John McCain but Republicans in all 2008 races. To counter that advantage, Mr. Barbour insists that Republicans have only one real option, which is to once again tap into the power of the mom-and-pop small donor. "When you're in power a long time, you become dependent on big money -- a few large donors." He again mentions with admiration how Mr. Obama captured the email addresses of a reported four million donors who "are giving $10 a month on their credit card. Republicans are going to have to once again become a party of ideas and then raise money on those ideas, because we're not going to get any access money. We haven't got anything to give anybody access to anymore. . . . You can get a picture with me, but that's worth about a sixpack of beer."

What should a post-Bush Republican foreign policy look like? I ask, because the party now seems incoherent on what it believes in with respect to America's position in the world. "I think, more and more, we're going to decide that there are very, very, strong limits to nation-building. But I think we'll also be for open markets. It's easy to be isolationist in bad economic times, but it's terrible policy. So I see our policy as open markets, internationalist, peace through strength, but caution about interventionism."

Mr. Barbour has been a vocal critic of the Obama stimulus plan. "A lot of this is just crazy," he fumes. "I'll tell you what I told [Obama] in front of 45 governors. Don't give me $400 million of one-time money and make me spend it on recurring expenses. I'm better off not to get it. I'm not sure a stimulus package is going to do much good after all the money the federal government has already popped into the economy." But then he adds: "The idea of long-term capital improvements is a lot better than just giving every state a blank check."

In the end, he advises, Republicans can only win if they rediscover the power and voter appeal of innovative and reform-minded solutions to the nation's ills. "If we're going to have a party that gets the White House back before we fall totally into socialism, we need to persuade voters that our market-based solutions work, and government mostly doesn't. And we're going to have to apply these principles to a whole new set of policy challenges."

The best people to do that, he insists, are the governors. He reminds me that in the 1990s it was governors like John Engler of Michigan, Fife Symington of Arizona, and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin who led the way on supply-side tax cutting, welfare reform and economic development. I ask him if there are any future Ronald Reagans out there in the states. He mentions Bobby Jindal, Mark Sanford, Jim Douglas and, of course, Sarah Palin. "This has to be a bottom-up rebuilding process," he says. "Republican solutions are going to flow from the states, not from Washington."

(This article originally was published January 10, 2009)

Mr. Moore is senior economics writer for the Wall Street Journal editorial page.