Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Barbour stop

A marriage of long standing is a wonderful thing. It’s a confirmation of the power of marital traditions (and the power of patience) when two people whose lives are so intertwined that, when the need be, one can prevent the other from making a colossal mistake. It’s especially comforting to see that, when one of the two lives in question is a political animal, family and common sense are still matters of the water’s edge.

We have Marsha Barbour to thank, now and apparently for good, for using the leverage of that marriage to stop her husband, Mississippi Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, from pursuing what would almost certainly have been a seriously quixotic campaign for the presidency in 2012.

Barbour, whose name was always one on the outside rail of consideration in the first place, had been more than toying with the idea. But with more than one unthinkable endorsement (regarding the segregationist White Citizens’ Council with high regard) and an outright insensitivity (famously saying that the civil rights era “wasn’t that bad” for African Americans), he’d have had an uphill climb for the nomination anyway, even in the Southern states — a region of America that demographically isn’t what it was in the South of his youth.

And then, finally, with the not-so-subtle appeals of the person who knows him best, Barbour, a king of conservative family values, was effectively sidelined by that family value conservatives value the most: Family.

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"I will not be a candidate for president next year," he said in a statement on Monday. "A candidate for president today is embracing a ten-year commitment to an all-consuming effort, to the virtual exclusion of all else. His (or her) supporters expect and deserve no less than absolute fire in the belly from their candidate. I cannot offer that with certainty, and total certainty is required."

Steve Kornacki in Salon writes: “On one level, it's easy to see why Barbour is backing out now. The burden of his tone deaf (and worse) comments on race and his home state's fraught racial history posed two serious problems for him: (1) In a general election campaign against America's first black president, they might distract from or overshadow his and his party's preferred message; (2) The prospect of (1) threatened to cost him primary season support from the conservative establishment -- which might not have a problem with his comments per se, but which is not overly eager to commit political suicide in the '12 election.”

“Still, it's surprising that he didn't take a shot. There continues to be an unusual amount of room to maneuver on the Republican side. There is no runaway favorite gobbling up cash and endorsements and leaving the rest of the field in the dust in horserace polls. Mitt Romney may be the closest there is to a natural front-runner … Donald Trump's recent rise in GOP polls -- which will almost certainly reverse itself if he persists with his candidacy charade -- is a testament to how eager GOP voters are for someone, anyone to rescue them from the uninspiring candidate choices they now face.”

That eagerness might have been the best reason not to get in. At least if there’s a frontrunner (for what that’s worth this far out), there’s someone to focus on, there’s a fixed target for a campaign’s energies. It’s hard to see a benefit in joining a race when you’re already well down in the polls; jumping in under those circumstances would have made Barbour part of the marching band in a parade of horrible choices.

“Against Mitt [Romney] and T-Paw [Tim Pawlenty] and Rick Santorum and Buddy Roemer, maybe Barbour could have found some traction (as improbable as it seems), fared surprisingly well in Iowa, made it through New Hampshire, then made a big move in South Carolina and the rest of Dixie. This is the kind of Republican field in which every candidate (well, OK, not every candidate) can look at his rivals and ask, "Why not me?"

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The American voter had no problem asking, “Why Barbour?” In poll after poll from early this year, Barbour was consistently outpointed by others at or near the head of the GOP’s cartoon cavalcade, even constitutional iconoclast Rep. Michele Bachmann and political personality Sarah Palin. CNN observed as much, and Salon’s Joan Walsh reacted to Barbour’s lack of candor about his own political viability: “That's what makes Barbour's statement so petulant; rather than acknowledging his limited electoral appeal, he's saying he's just not that into us and can't make a 10-year commitment. Please.”

But at the end of the day, all the political language, all this talk of gastric fortitude probably came down to a wife’s private appeal. You pay attention to the one who breathes your air. Haley Barbour apparently did.

That’s the takeaway from Jill Lawrence’s insightful piece in today’s Daily Beast. Lawrence quotes from Marsha Barber speaking in a recent TV interview: ““It horrifies me,” she said. “You would commit to 10 years, which would be two years of campaigning, then you run to win, so it would be four years. Then you would want to run again—so it’s 10 years, and it’s the last part of our productive lives.”

One Republican told Lawrence: “The bottom line is he loves his family, loves Marsha, loves his kids very, very deeply. If he would have said ‘this is what I really want to do,’ they would have been there 100 percent. It was kind of his turn to put them first. Simple as that.”

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Nothing in politics is that simple, of course. Even setting aside his macaca-on-steroids racial gaffes, Barbour would have faced the serious challenge of raising millions of dollars for a campaign to be fought against better-capitalized opponents. Even Palin’s got more disposable cash right now, and Trump’s 24K war chest? Please.

And at the age of 63, Barbour — even the newly physically slimmer model — would be called on to summon an uncommon stamina for the next two years. Not likely when you’re two years shy of Social Security. The only thing as comfortable as the wife you sleep with is the mattress you sleep on.

Haley Barbour will, for now anyway, have to live with the one itch he could never scratch. We may never know how badly he wanted to scratch it in the first place. It may not matter to us. It’s fair to say it doesn’t matter at all to Marsha Barbour. With the thanks of a grateful nation, she who must be obeyed has decided she wants what’s left of the fire in that belly to warm the hearth at home.

Image credits: Haley Barbour: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. Salon.com logo: © 2011 Salon. Haley and Marsha Barbour: governorbarbour.com

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