Haley Barbour Gaffe Drags Republican Party Backwards on Race

Haley Barbour’s refusal to denounce Confederate license plates is just the latest example of a Republican Party that is regressing on race—and damaging its electoral future.

Former Virginia Senator George Allen and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. (Credit: AP Photo)

"I don't go around denouncing people," said Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour this week. "That's not going to happen. I don't even denounce the news media." Cute line. It implied that not only does Barbour see nothing objectionable in the effort to issue a Mississippi license plate for former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest, but he considers the real villains those journalists with the audacity to bring the issue up.

They still don’t get it. By “it,” I mean the new politics of race. And by “they,” I mean leading members of the Republican Party.

Is Barbour a racist? Probably not in the sense that he harbors a consuming hatred of African Americans. But he is a guy with a nostalgic view of pre-civil rights Mississippi, as reflected in his recent defense of the avowedly segregationist Citizens Council and his claim, about the tribulations of the civil rights movement in his state, that "I just don't remember it as being that bad."

Once upon a time, national politicians could get away with that. Ronald Reagan, after all, launched his 1980 presidential campaign with a nod to “states’ rights” at Mississippi’s Neshoba County State Fair. But in recent years, the political climate has grown less tolerant of racist, or even anti-anti-racist attitudes. The electorate is more black and brown than it was in Reagan’s day, and even many younger white voters expect their leaders to display a comfort with multiculturalism. At the beginning of this century, the GOP seemed to be catching on to that. One of George W. Bush’s main selling points in the 2000 Republican primary, after all, was his apparent success in winning Hispanic voters in Texas. As president, he tried to build on it by appointing African Americans to key Cabinet posts, ducking the issue of affirmative action, and treading softly on illegal immigration. But since then, the GOP has slid backward. Its demonization of illegal immigrants has wrecked Bush and Rove’s effort at Hispanic outreach; it recently deposed its African-American party chair, and it seems likely to renominate George Allen, he of the famed “macaca” slur, for a run for a Virginia Senate seat.

The problem, I suspect, is that many Republicans have forgotten they have a problem. Barack Obama’s woes, and their triumph last fall, have seduced them into believing that they can regain the presidency without any serious effort at altering the party’s reputation among African-American and other minority voters. The Barbour incident is a case in point. The Nathan Bedford Forrest controversy offered Barbour a perfect opportunity for a “Sister Souljah” moment—a public confrontation with his own white, right-wing Southern base aimed at winning him credibility outside of it. Such a confrontation would not have cost Barbour much. As a son of the South with a winning personality and a long right-wing record, he would still have had an excellent chance of picking up conservative votes, especially in his native region. The fact that he chose to attack the media instead suggests that he doesn’t think he has anything to prove. Like most Republicans, he probably believes the liberal media is forever itching to prove that Republicans are racist, even while giving Democrats a pass for their own racial gaffes. But for today’s Republicans, blaming the media provides a way of ignoring what Bush and Rove knew: that in an increasingly multiracial electorate, a Republican Party that can’t win non-white and non-Anglo votes can’t win presidential elections.

For today’s Republicans, blaming the media provides a way of ignoring what Bush and Rove knew: that in an increasingly multi-racial electorate, a GOP that can’t win non-white and non-Anglo votes can’t win presidential elections.

For a long time, the GOP benefited from the politics of race. Its leaders seem to have trouble grasping that we now live in a different age.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.