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06.28.09

Barbour vs. Obama, 2012

In the fourth in a series of posts on the 2012 landscape, former Bush and McCain strategist Mark McKinnon explains why the Mississippi governor, in the wake of the Ensign and Sanford debacles, could go all the way.

In the fifth in a series of posts on the 2012 landscape, former Bush and McCain strategist Mark McKinnon explains why the Mississippi governor, in the wake of the Ensign and Sanford debacles, could go all the way—and why Jenny Sanford is a potential superstar.

Read Mark McKinnon's full series on the 2012 landscape.

Go ahead and laugh at the idea of Haley Barbour for president. It’s only natural. The idea is as ridiculous as believing that Mark Sanford was actually out hiking the Appalachian Trail—which, of course, I did.

But the fun thing about politics is that the conventional wisdom so often gets thrown out the window. So laugh at the idea of candidate Barbour if you want to, but there are some interesting angles to consider.

The best thing Barbour would have going for him is that his opposition would not take him seriously.

Samuel P. Jacobs has an excellent Daily Beast report that covers Barbour’s political history, which includes: political director of the Reagan White House, co-founder of one of Washington’s most successful lobbying firms, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and governor of Mississippi.

The notion of Barbour as a serious presidential candidate seems improbable, but think about the dynamics of most presidential elections. Whenever there is a “change” election, people don’t vote for moderate change, they vote for radical change. And they generally look to someone who is the opposite of the resident of the White House at the time. Hence, George W. Bush creates the possibility of Barack Obama—just as Johnson begat Nixon, Nixon/Ford begat Carter, Carter begat Reagan, and Bush begat Clinton. In each of these cases, voters wanted the polar opposite of the man who was in office.

As talented as President Obama is, and given his fairly impressive performance so far, it’s a pretty safe bet that he will be reelected in 2012. But that makes some big assumptions, the kind of assumptions people made about George H.W. Bush in 1991, when he had approval ratings above 80 percent and everyone thought he’d be a two-term president.

So let’s take an alternative view, just for the sake of political parlor games. Let’s say things deteriorate significantly in the next couple of years: The economy slides into permanent recession. We experience a significant foreign-policy crisis with Iran or North Korea. Things go badly off the rails.

Under these circumstances, voters would likely experience some serious buyer’s remorse about Obama and look for a very different candidate. And could there be anybody more different from Obama than Barbour? An old (not young), white (not black), rotund (not skinny), former lobbyist (not former community organizer) from the Deep South, Mississippi (not the far north, Chicago).

And while most laughed at the idea of someone of Barbour’s background being elected governor, even in Mississippi, both his election and tenure since have been impressive. He balanced budgets without any tax increases after inheriting a budget deficit of $720 million; helped establish a 27.8 percent increase in per capita personal income; enacted comprehensive tort reform; and passed significant funding increases for education. Barbour was elected in 2003 with the largest voter turnout in Mississippi gubernatorial history, and he was re-elected in 2007 with 58.2 percent of the vote. He is the second governor since Reconstruction to be elected to a second consecutive term.

And Hurricane Katrina provided a true leadership litmus test. Just look at the difference in the response between Mississippi and Louisiana. Governor Kathleen Blanco was driven from office for her miserable performance. Barbour was reelected handily for his and awarded the Thomas Jefferson Freedom Award, which is presented to a nationally recognized leader by the bipartisan American Legislative Exchange Council. He was also named Governor of the Year for 2006 by Washington, D.C.-based Governing magazine.

And Barbour is a consummate campaigner. He has a finely tuned understanding of American politics. A big talent. Highly literate. Raised by a single mom. And never failed at anything he’s tried.

And the best thing he’d have going for him is that his opposition would not take him seriously.

So, with Haley’s comet lighting up the skies of New Hampshire and Iowa—and with Sanford and Ensign’s stars having crashed ignominiously to earth, it’s time once again to realign our 2012 Top 10 list (although it’s getting harder and harder to find even 10 worthy candidates):

1. Mitt Romney (given sexual escapades of last two weeks, the Mormon is looking better and better)
2. Tim Pawlenty
3. John Thune
4. Mike Huckabee
5. Sarah Palin
6. Bobby Jindal
7. Newt Gingrich
8. Haley Barbour
9. Mitch Daniels
10. Jon Huntsman

Long, ridiculous shot just for fun and because she deserves some kudos: Jenny Sanford (credit for at least one Sanford coming out of the mess looking good).

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, causes, and individuals, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono. McKinnon is co-chair of Arts & Labs, a collaboration between technology and creative communities that have embraced today’s rich Internet environment to deliver innovative and creative digital products to consumers.