“This year is the most consequential election in our lifetime.”

Haley Barbour Talks About Policy, the Political Environment, and the Need for Republicans to have a Big Tent

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Former Mississippi Governor and RNC Chairman Haley Barbour appeared before a luncheon meeting of The Ripon Society this past Wednesday, delivering a speech in which he talked about policy, the political environment, and the need for Republicans to be more inclusive as they move toward the general election this year.

“Ya’ll are important to the Republican Party,” Barbour told Ripon Society members, in opening his remarks. “The Presidential election this year is the most consequential of anybody in this room’s lifetime. Whoever wins will get about 75 million votes — that’s going to be about what it takes to get elected President of the United States. And to get 75 million votes, you’ve got to be a big, broad political party. If everybody has to agree with Haley Barbour on everything to be a Republican, we would never win any elections in most places.

“When I went up to Burlington, Vermont to do an event for Jim Jeffords in 1994, some of my more conservative friends didn’t think too much of that. And I told them, ‘Jim Jeffords is the most liberal Republican in the United States Senate. And he’s the most conservative member of the Vermont delegation. He’s as good as we’re going to get. And, of course, he was replaced by a socialist — literally. Bernie Sanders, a socialist. So we Republicans need to always remember we’re the conservative party of the United States, and the Democrats are the liberal party of the United States. But both parties need to be broad and inclusive if they’re going to win.

“My old boss Ronald Reagan used to say, ‘Remember, a fellow that agrees with you 80% of the time is your friend and ally, he’s not a 20% traitor. We need to run political business that way — now, particularly this year, because this year is the most consequential election of our lifetime.”

Barbour, who was an architect of the campaign to win control of the House in 1994, also shared his thoughts on the 2012 campaign and GOP prospects this year.

“Let’s face it,” the former party head stated, “the incumbent President in a reelection campaign is always the favorite. We shouldn’t lose track of that. If you go back to 1896, only once has a President won the White House away from the other party and then turned around and lost it back in just four years: Jimmy Carter. That’s the only example of that … So, that’s one thing Obama has on his side. Secondly, when incumbent Presidents lose, the normal harbinger is to have a nasty fight for their own party’s nomination. A lot of you were around in 1992 and remember Pat Buchanan. Ted Kennedy’s opposition to Carter in 1980. Gene McCarthy ran Johnson out of the race. Truman dropped out because of troubles in his own party. Well, Obama has none of that. He had no contest at all.

“Third, while the news media like to talk about Republicans raising a lot of money, Obama is going to have a gigantic financial advantage. Last time, Obama outspent John McCain, through their own campaign and their national party, by more than two to one — $770 and something million to $300 million. And that doesn’t include more than $400 million that the labor unions didn’t contribute to the campaigns, but spent directly on Obama’s election. McCain got outspent by about four to one. And we’re going to get outspent again, because if labor put up $400 million dollars in 2008, what are they going to do after the Boeing hits in South Carolina? What are they going to do after the card-checks effort they want to continue? What are they going to do after all these NLRB decisions to make it easier to unionize? The fact of the matter is, labor is going to be in with a bundle. Obama is going to have enough money to burn a wet mule.

“The fourth thing in Obama’s favor is the Republican Primary. Let’s face it — there wasn’t anything pretty about it. It was not particularly helpful. It did not make Romney look better. In fact, if you would have asked me a year ago, six months ago, three months ago, ‘Where would the race start once we had a nominee?’ Well, I can remember in 1980, Reagan was behind 15 points. Some people in the Ripon Society were saying, “Draft Gerald Ford!’ I was hoping Romney — or whoever won the nomination — would not be behind 15 points, because I expected him to be behind. Yet the first Gallup poll after Romney became the presidential nominee, Romney was up two. As we’ve gone through five weeks of polling now, almost all of it has been within the margin of error, with just as many polls having Romney ahead as Obama ahead.

“Now, we should never lose sight that Presidential elections are actually 51 little elections. It isn’t who wins the most votes in the national. So, national polling is only somewhat enlightening when you’re talking about who’s going to be elected President. But we started off nationally way ahead of where a lot of people had expected, and I can guarantee way ahead of where the Obama people thought Romney would start off. So, if we get off to a good start, it doesn’t take away from the fact that Obama is the favorite. And, he’s got these other advantages.

“You see, his strategy is starting to become apparent, though I think it was always self-evident. The Democrats are going to try to make this an election where they disqualify Romney — where they make him unacceptable. You’re starting to see the TV spots over and over and over. ‘He’s not like us. He doesn’t care about people like you, shipping jobs overseas.’ You just go down the list. ‘He doesn’t love his dog. He’s married to an equestrian.’ That’s going to be their strategy, because they don’t have a choice. Obama can’t be reelected on his record. He can’t run on his record. Which brings you to what our strategy will be.

“Our strategy will be to try and make this campaign about policy — about the policies Obama has followed and the results that have been achieved. And the American people think that’s failure! Virtually any poll will show you that 60% of Americans think that this country’s going in the wrong direction. Some polls are in the high-60s showing we’re going the wrong direction. Interestingly, the people who say, ‘We strongly agree the country is going in the wrong direction” is up in the 40s. These are huge numbers for ‘strongly against’ ‘strongly oppose’ ‘strongly disapprove’ of the job Obama is doing.

“He is an incredible polarizer. With the polarization we see in these polls, it’s amazing to me how many people say, ‘I don’t think Obama is doing a good job and I’m going to vote for him.’ If you ask the question — and this question has been asked in six polls in the last three or four weeks — the biggest issue is the economy and jobs. You can slice it up different ways, but the economy and jobs always comes out the number one issue. And for good cause — it ought to. But if you ask people, ‘Do you think Obama’s policies have helped the economy improve, made the economy worse, or made no difference?,’ virtually every poll – more than 65% — say either, ‘made the economy worse’ or ‘made no difference.’ They’re sitting there with only 30% saying his policies are helping the economy. That’s a hell of a burden to carry in an election. And we’ve got to make him carry it.”

That said, the former Mississippi Governor emphasized that the election this November will not turn on politics or polling. Rather, it will turn on the challenges facing the American people and the failures of the past three and a half years.

“We’ve got to make this election about policy, about Obama’s policies and the results of those policies,” Barbour declared. “And we can take the policies one by one, and you don’t have to explain it to them. People are concerned about government spending. And when you talk about how much government spending has gone up, you give a little example. The federal government everyday takes in a little over $6 billion. Every day, the federal government spends about $10 billion. Now, $6 billion coming in, $10 billion going out — if you ran your business that way, you could write a book about it. It would start at Chapter 11! People get that. People know the country can’t spend itself rich any more than you can spend yourself rich.

“Our country can’t spend its way out of a deficit. Yet the answer for every problem in the Obama world is bigger government. And they want to finance that with deficits that are unprecedented in the history of the country. He’s increased the national debt by about $5 trillion in three and a half years. That is particularly concerning when you realize that during the first 220-some years of the country all the way up until Obama became President, the country’s national debt was about $10 trillion. He increased it by 50% in three and a half years! People know that’s unsustainable and they know who’s going to pay for it — our children and grandchildren are going to have to pay that off. Or we’re going to have inflation and interest rates we had when Jimmy Carter was President. People don’t need it explained to them in great depth. You don’t have to convince them. But it does help to put a few facts in front of them.

“By the Administration’s own admission, the Obamacare package is going to make the cost of health care go up. Well, I can tell you something about Obamacare. The 60% or so who disapprove of it generally feel: ‘I’m going to pay more, and I’m going to get less.’ That’s their expectation of government-run health care: ‘I’m going to pay more, and I’m going to get less.’ But it doesn’t take a lot to convince them or remind them how can we expect employers to hire more people if they don’t know what their obligations or costs are going to be for health care for their employees? How do we say to the employers of this country: “President Obama wants to put a $1.5 trillion tax increase that will fall almost entirely on employers.’ Now, how are they going to decide they’re going to hire more people? A tax is a cost. When government makes you pay thousands or millions more in taxes, that’s money you can’t spend on hiring people. That’s money you can’t spend on wages, on benefits, on pension plans, or technology, or expansions. The American people don’t have a hard time grasping this. That’s why the left is going to do everything they can do to change the subject.”

In order to change the subject, Barbour predicted, the Obama reelection campaign is going to attack Mitt Romney personally and try to tear him down – much in the same way, he noted, that Bill Clinton did to Bob Dole in 1996.

“It won’t be attacking Romney’s policies,” the former Mississippi Governor stated. “It’ll be that Romney is a bad person — to disqualify him. They did that very successfully to Dole in ’96. They were talking about the Republican Congress and were attacking Dole and Newt. But the target was Dole — to disqualify Dole, to make Dole unacceptable. Dole never got above 43 in the polls. He ended up getting 42%. But remember, Ross Perot also ran and got 9%. So Clinton got 49%. Clinton, by the way, is one of only three Presidents in American history who got elected and reelected but never received the majority of the vote. He got 43% in ’92 and 49% in ’96. Of course, Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland were the others. I say that because they were all Democrats.

“Their goal is to drive Romney down to where Dole was — 42, 43, 44 — and try to keep him there. They’re going to spend $500 million dollars running negative TV advertising carpet-bombing Romney to where even his Grandmother wouldn’t recognize him — or vote for him. Just get prepared. We’ve got to keep changing the subject back to Obama’s record. We want people, when they walk into the voting booth in 2012, to think the same thing that they thought in 1980: ‘Am I better off than I was four years ago?’ What we see is a very large segment of Obama voters who are dissatisfied. The question is, who’s going to get them? I mentioned earlier that I didn’t think it would be nearly this close at the start. And the reason is, Romney is not every Republican’s cup of tea. He’s the least conservative of the candidates in the conservative party. Yet the party rallied around him immediately, much quicker than I feared — which is just a reminder that Obama is the great ‘uniter’ of Republicans and conservatives. You know, Romney may not be your cup of tea, but anybody is better than Obama. Romney is, I think, going to show people a side of him that is compelling in terms of the right kind of policies versus the wrong kind of policies.

“But just as Obama is the great unifier of Republicans, he has got a great loyalty among many Democrats. Large numbers say they disapprove of the job he’s doing, they think the country is going in the wrong direction, and they’re going to vote for Obama. That’s the target here in this race. Virtually everybody who is in play voted for Obama. Obama got about 53% of the vote last time. Somewhere in that 53%, there’s about 4 or 5% we’ve got to win, and who are available to us, not because they dislike Obama — they want Obama to succeed. One of the advantages of being the first African-American President is people want you to succeed. They want this to be successful. Yet they don’t think he’s doing a good job. Where do they end up at the end of the day? We’re not going to make them dislike Barack Obama and have the views of him that many of us have. That’s not going to happen.

“What we’ve got to convince them of is the bad job that he’s doing, that he has no right to blame somebody else — which, of course, is always the Obama first-step. It’s somebody else’s fault. ‘Bush did it. The oil companies did it. The pharmaceutical companies did it. The Europeans did it.’ You know, it’s always somebody else’s fault. They’ve got to first decide it isn’t somebody else’s fault. And then they’ve got to decide that Romney would do better — that there’s another choice and another chance. We’ll see how that goes. But if Romney is disqualified, it’ll happen this summer. If it doesn’t happen this summer, they will have failed to achieve that, because this is when they get to run relatively in the open at very high levels of spending that we can’t match.

“Once you get to September and October, I think the race changes. If they haven’t disqualified Romney, then the person in danger of collapsing is Obama. Is this 1980 again? Obviously, I hope so. But I think he is the one that has all of the downside from then on. If he doesn’t, then this race will look like 1960; it will look like 1968; it will look like 2000 — just a straight-up-and-down-close-as-it-can-get-race. And that may end up happening. If Romney gets through the summer, and Obama gets through October, then we may have a race that is as 50-50 of a race that you ever saw. And it really will turn around on a handful of states. We’ll see if that happens.”

Barbour concluded his remarks by discussing the impact of the presidential contest on House and Senate campaigns.

“How does it affect Congress?” he asked. “Too many of my business friends think, ‘Well, if Obama wins, at least we’ve got the House — we can keep him from doing anything terrible.’ If they disqualify Romney and he ends up getting in the mid-40s, we’ll lose the House. I remember when John [Boehner] said that, and some of his members got unhappy. Well, it’s just the truth. If we do badly enough at the top of the ticket, we’ll lose the House. We’ve got 89 freshmen, and the most vulnerable election of your career is your first reelection. Sixty-one of our Members run in districts that Obama carried last time. Sixteen of these districts, he carried by more than 10 points. Freshmen can’t survive a 10 point, 12 point, 15 point loss at the top of the ticket. They just can’t. So don’t think we’ve got the House locked up. I do think in a 50-50 race, we probably keep the House, maybe with a slight reduction in the majority, but not much.

“The Senate we all thought a year ago was pretty doable. And it is still doable. Twenty-four Democrat seats and 10 Republican, but it didn’t turn out to be as easy as we thought. Olympia’s retirement cost us a seat. We’re going to try as hard as we can try, but the likelihood of keeping Maine is not good. Scott Brown we know has a tough race. The Democrats will go after Heller, but I don’t think they’ll get him. But my point is — I don’t think we’re going to have a real risk with Heller. But we have to be careful. Instead of picking up four – three if we win the White House — we’ll probably have to actually win five seats because we’re going to lose at least one. And some of these races haven’t turned out to be as easy as they look.

“In Nebraska, Bob Kerrey getting in makes it tougher. In North Dakota, the Democrats nominated their strongest candidate by far. Montana is a real horse race. New Mexico is a real horse race. Not that we thought either one of those would have been easy. We should win Missouri, but that’s not shooting fish in a barrel. Virginia, this is a hugely close race. Florida is doable, but not easy by any stretch of the imagination. Ohio, we’ve got a serious candidate but we’re behind, we’ve got some catching-up to do. If Tommy Thompson is the nominee in Wisconsin, I will predict we will win Wisconsin. I do think we will keep Indiana. If Lugar had won the nomination, it would be a 100% percent chance.

“But it’s no given that we’re going to win the Senate. And again, if the Democrats succeed in disqualifying Romney in the summer, it gets much harder to win the Senate. So all of this is to go back and say — this is the most consequential election in our lifetime. It will probably determine who will win the House and the Senate, as well as the direction of the country, which will be almost 180 degrees different depending on who you elect. And that difference is almost all about the proper size and role and cost of government in our lives and in the economy. We all have a huge stake in that.”

Responding to questions after his remarks, Governor Barbour shared his thoughts on Mitt Romney’s choice of a running mate and the Vice Presidential short list this year.

“First of all,” he stated, “people should not be thinking about ‘who’ right now, they should be thinking about what we want to accomplish with this election. The first rule of picking a Vice President is the Hippocratic rule: Do no harm. Some of us were around in 1972 when McGovern picked Tom Eagleton, and it didn’t work out so good. Do no harm.

“The second rule is to do what President Kennedy did in 1960 when he picked Lyndon Johnson — get somebody who almost guarantees a big critical state that you probably wouldn’t carry without him. If you believe, or if Mitt believes, that Governor Ridge would guarantee his carrying Pennsylvania; if he believes that Rob Portman would give him Ohio. Does he believe that Scott Walker would give him Wisconsin? Does he need McDonnell to carry Virginia? Does he need Rubio to carry Florida? I don’t know. But that’s what they’ve got to be deciding – is there somebody who gives you a big state you wouldn’t otherwise carry? I don’t know that there necessarily is.

“Third is unite the party. President Reagan picked George Bush to unite the party in 1980 because he didn’t want the middle to go the way of the Goldwater campaign. And the last thing is you can pick someone to re-shuffle the deck. Throw the bomb. But, that almost never works, and in this case, it’s not necessary — we start off in a dead heat. We don’t need to re-shuffle the deck. We need to keep it like it is. So I suspect you’ll get one or two, and the question is — is there anybody who can actually perform number two? Ohio and Pennsylvania are the two states that would be the most desirable. I would venture to say to you if either candidate carries both Ohio and Pennsylvania, they’ll be President, just because of the way the rest of the states are likely to break out.” Barbour was also asked about the rise of the Tea Party and its impact on the Republican Party and the national political debate.

“There is a strain of Perot-ism in it,” he replied, in describing the movement. “There are some of the same people, but it is very differently organized. The Perot organization actually attempted to have a national organization, with a modicum of success. There is no attempt in the Tea Party movement. There has got to be 25 Tea Party groups in Mississippi. And there is no Tea Party per se. There are a bunch of little deals, and some pretty good-sized deals. They are middle-aged and older. They don’t tend to be very young. There are some young people, but generally tend to be middle-aged and younger. These are people who got scared enough to get off the sofa and do something about it. Obama scared them to death over the size of government, over spending, deficit, debts, taxes, Obamacare, energy policy.

“In 2010, they generally helped us. Now, we lost a Senate seat in Delaware, just pure and simple. It went from more of a lock with Mike Castle to getting demolished, because Mike would have voted right 80% of the time. And we’ve got some left-wing goofball who votes right like 1% of the time. We probably lost a seat in Colorado. I don’t think we lost a seat in Nevada over this, but clearly, the former state party chairman would have been better. Still, I would say it’s a net-plus. The energy, enthusiasm, volunteers have paid off in a lot of places. In the primaries, I thought at times they got people off message. I thought Romney at one time tried to compete for being the most-conservative candidate. There was a perception that they wanted the most conservative candidate. I’m not sure that was ever right. I think some messages got bent a little bit trying to appeal to the Tea Party people. The greatest danger is that they form a third party. I think we’re probably beyond that. But that was the great, great risk.

“The other thing — which I don’t consider the same kind of risk but which I think is hugely important – is we have to spend a lot of energy and time bringing these people in under the tent, letting them have a chance to participate, letting them have a chance to run, be on the county committee, be precinct committeeman, be on the finance committee, be president of the women’s federation. In the process, we have got to let them learn that purity in politics is the enemy of victory. Only one perfect person has every walked on this earth, and He ain’t running this year. We’re out there looking for perfection, and that’s one of their weaknesses. You see it in some of the House guys. They want to be pure — they want to be for what’s perfect. That’s not an option in the real world, because you have to get enough votes to win. Not everybody is going to agree on what’s even perfect. We need to teach ‘em. The mathematics of politics is about addition and multiplication, it’s not about division and subtraction. You’ve got to get purity out of your mind.

“I mentioned earlier in my remarks what Reagan used to say. Reagan used to say the fellow who agreed with you 80% of the time is your friend and ally, and not a 20% traitor. So in 1986, Specter was up for reelection. And Ed Rollins — who brought me to the White House — didn’t want Reagan to help Specter. He had said something to Specter to that effect, which Reagan got unhappy about because he didn’t authorize it and, frankly, didn’t feel that way. So we had a little meeting with the political people. Reagan says, ‘Well Ed, how much does Specter support me?’ Ed just smiled and said, ‘He supports you the least of any Republican in the conference — 59% of the time. The President nodded and said, “Now Ed, how much does that Democrat Congressman running against him support me?’ Rollins kind of turned red-faced and said, ‘Well, 17% of the time.’

“Reagan said, ‘You know Ed, this kind of reminds me of the bear story.’ ‘Bear story?’ he asked. ‘Yeah, the two guys were backpacking through the mountains one time and they were coming down this there path. When out from the woods jumps this 12-foot tall grizzly bear — drooling, nasty, obviously spotted his lunch. And one of them calmly sat down and started putting on his running shoes, took them out of the backpack. The other looked at him and said, ‘Fool, what are you doing? You can’t outrun that bear.’ The other one smiled and said, ‘I ain’t got to outrun the bear. I’ve just got to outrun you.’

“That’s the way we need to think in politics. Somebody who is far, far better than the Democrat has got to be our choice — even if he ain’t perfect. And our friends at the Club for Growth, and our friends at FreedomWorks and other places have got to learn that. They’re doing us a hell of a lot more disservice than the Tea Party. Because they’re putting money behind people to beat good Republicans who would vote right 80, 90% of the time.”

The Ripon Society is a public policy organization that was founded in 1962 and takes its name from the town where the Republican Party was born in 1854 – Ripon, Wisconsin. One of the main goals of The Ripon Society is to promote the ideas and principles that have made America great and contributed to the GOP’s success. These ideas include keeping our nation secure, keeping taxes low and having a federal government that is smaller, smarter and more accountable to the people.