The high risk of caricature
Haley Barbour, prospective presidential candidate, is a white southern Republican with a thick southern accent. The worst thing he could do, at this early phase of the '12 campaign, is to feed the most negative connotations of a white southern Republican with a thick southern accent.
Yet he has now done so, four separate times. This is not a good track record for a Mississippi guy who aspires to lead an increasingly multicultural nation.
First up was an incident last April, when Barbour defended the Virginia governor's decision to celebrate "Confederate History Month" without any mention of slavery; a lot of people complained about the omission, but Barbour said that issue "didn't amount to diddly." Next up was the incident last December, when he waxed nostalgic about growing up in Mississippi during the civil rights era; his state arguably led the region in race violence at the time, but he insisted, "I just don't remember it as being that bad."
Next up was the incident in February, when, in his capacity as Mississippi governor, he refused to condemn a legislative proposal to memorialize, on Mississipp license plates, a Confederate general who became a domestic terrorist when he helped create the Ku Klux Klan. Said Barbour, "I don't go around denouncing people," but after taking heat for awhile, he finally took a stand against KKK license plates.
And now we have a fourth incident, with Barbour as collateral damage. Two days ago, he had to fire his press secretary after word got out, via the Politico website, that the Mississipi flak was fond of circulating, to Barbour staffers and various allies, a daily diet of insensitive jokes.
Last Friday, for instance, the soon-doomed aide, Dan Turner, wrote that on the very same day in 1968, "Otis Redding posthumously received a gold record single for his single (Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay," and appended this punch line: "Not a big hit in Japan right now." Turner further noted that, on the same day in 1993, "Janet Reno was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate to become the first female attorney general. (It took longer to confirm her gender than to confirm her law license.)"
Barbour himself supposedly never received the jokes, just the news summaries and office chaff that accompanied the jokes. But it's clear, from the totality of the four incidents, that Barbour, an otherwise seasoned political player who once ran the Republican National Committee, is embedded in a parochial southern culture and surrounded by good-ole-boy advisors who may well lack the right stuff to play seriously on the national stage.
Being a white southern governor isn't necessarily a handicap in a Republican primary race; the primary electorate is overwhelmingly white, and the South has long been a linchpin of party strength. But winning a general election might be another matter entirely. The problem with these four incidents is that they paint Barbour as a solely regional candidate who can't talk the talk of a racially diverse electorate; if anything, these incidents fuel the caricature of the southern politician, perhaps best emboded by fictional Mississippi Gov. Pappy O'Daniel in the film O Brother Where Art Thou (indeed, actor Charles Durning does have a passing resemblance).
Barbour's defenders insist that these gaffes mean nothing; as GOP strategist Scott Reed told the press yesterday, "Gov. Barbour deserves to be judged on his actions." So, let's do that, because Barbour has been governor since 2004. According to a comprehensive report on Mississippi, produced in 2009 by the American Human Development Project, a nonprofit established to analyze social trends, Mississippi ranks with the very worst states on health, income, and education.
Feed in the race factor, and the picture is even grimmer. As one analyst of the human development project noted, it's no fun to be black in Barbour's Mississippi: "A black male born in Mississippi today can expect a shorter life span than the average American in 1960. A black woman in Mississippi earns less today than the typical American in 1960. The overall infant mortality rate for nonwhites in Mississippi is more than 18 per 1,000 births, about the same as Libya and Thailand. Overall, black Mississippians are worse off than other black Americans, ranking second to last on the health and income index (just ahead of Louisiana) but dead last in education."
Granted, it's tough for any governor to move the needle on poverty, and the woes of Mississippi long predate this particular one. But Barbour's immediate political problem is that he doesn't have a substantive story to tell, some kind of "Mississippi miracle" that would trump the caricature - and the four incidents that are feeding the caricature.
It would be great if Barbour chose to join the 2012 chase (he just hired a top New Hampshire startegist), because he's smart and seasoned (the most fluid Republican race since 1940 could use more of both), and because he would add spice to the proceedings (as he did in Iowa last night, when he broke with other Republicans and said that perhaps America should scale back its presence in Afghanistan). But unless he can surmount the southern-fried stereotype, his highest aspirations won't amount to diddly.