Few people are as steeped in national Republican politics as former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and when he says he has never seen a GOP presidential primary like this one, you might want to pay attention.
This is a Republican primary that has already seen New York real estate mogul Donald Trump climb to the top while breaking all the conventional rules of politics, and has seen the collapse of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who started the summer as the conservative golden boy.
“I will be emphatic about one thing,” Barbour told me last week. “Anybody who tells you they know who is going to win the Republican nomination for president will lie to you about other things.”
Barbour was practically there at the birth of the modern Southern Republican Party.
He dropped out of college in 1968 to run 30 Mississippi counties for Richard Nixon at a time when six percent of Mississippians identified themselves as Republicans. He went on to become White House political director under President Ronald Reagan, was national Republican Party chairman (1993-97), and more recently was governor of Mississippi (2004-12). He considered running for president himself in 2012 and his high-powered Washington lobbying firm, BGR, has ties to a number of the presidential candidates.
Barbour was in Raleigh last week to speak to the John Locke Foundation about his new book, “America’s Great Storm: Leading Through Katrina,” which addresses how his state recovered from Katrina, the devastating hurricane that did so much damage along the Gulf Coast.
I sat down with Barbour to ask him to share his thoughts on a GOP presidential primary that has caught the attention of the nation.
Barbour said he doesn’t recall a field this large (17 candidates until two candidates dropped out), this diverse – or one that started with no frontrunner.
Given his standing in the polls, Barbour said, Trump should now be afforded frontrunner status. “The question is does he keep it?” Barbour said.
“He has tapped into the vein of not only discontent, but anger,” Barbour said. “That dissatisfaction with the performance of government is not just from Republicans. Sixty percent of Americans in every poll think the country is going in the wrong direction. And they have good reason to think that.”
The average American family is making less than it did many years ago, Barbour said. Median household income is 6.5 percent lower than it was in 2007. This has been weakest economic recovery since World War II.
Barbour blames the weak recovery on “huge” tax increases and bad regulatory policies of the Obama administration
“Trump is the one who has used his celebrity better than anybody to tap into that anger,” he said. “Bernie Sanders is tapping into some of that on the other side.”
Trailing Trump in the polls right now are two other outsiders, Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, and Carly Fiorina, a former businesswoman.
“I believe that right now not having served in the government you do not get any of the blame for a very bad performance of our government he said.
At the beginning of the election cycle, a number of commentators had cited as one strength of the Republican presidential field that it had nine Republican governors or former governors, all with executive experience: Jeb Bush of Florida, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Walker of Wisconsin, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Perry of Texas, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, George Pataki of New York and Jim Gilmore of Virginia.
Since then, Perry and Walker have dropped out and the other governors have failed to catch fire. Bush is doing the best at 7.8 percent, according to an average of national polls compiled by Real Clear Politics, a nonpartisan website. Huckabee is at 4.8 percent, Kasich is at 2.5 percent, Christie at 1.3 percent, Jindal at 0.3 percent and Pataki and Gilmore don’t even register.
Jeb Bush, who has never had a job in Washington in his life, is (viewed as) the Washington establishment candidate.
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour
“Rick Perry was an enormously successful governor,” said Barbour. “His problem was 2012. As my mama said, ‘You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.’ Scott Walker was a candidate for which there were very high expectations, yet he kept getting tangled up by being perceived as changing positions and that sort of stuff.”
“Maybe just as interesting, Jeb Bush, who has never had a job in Washington in his life, is (viewed as) the Washington establishment candidate,” Barbour said.
Barbour said that if the governors are given a chance to be judged on their state records, they will do well. But Barbour said that so far they are getting caught up in the anti-Washington sentiment.
The large number of candidates means it will take longer for the field to narrow to just a few candidates, Barbour said. That also increases the likelihood of a brokered convention.
“There is more talk than I have heard since 1976 about the possibility that we will go to the convention without someone having a majority of the delegates,” he said. “I don’t think that is likely but it is more possible than any time since 1976.”
In 1976, the GOP convention nominated President Gerald Ford after defeating a strong challenge by California Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Barbour said it was a mistake for Trump not to pledge to back the Republican nominee at the first debate, and a wise move for him to later change his mind and make the pledge. He said Republicans remember the effect in 1992 of third-party candidate Ross Perot, whose presence helped elect Bill Clinton as president.
“He (Trump) says he is not going to do it,” said Barbour, speaking of a third-party candidacy, “and I take him at his word.”