Aim Low

Haley Barbour is the GOP’s leading candidate in 2012—for vice president.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour 

When Gov. Mark Sanford’s political future imploded in June, he let down an important constituency. Never mind the people of South Carolina: The Republican Governors Association, of which Sanford was chairman, had to scramble—and within an hour it had announced that Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi and pol-about-town, would take Sanford’s place. Barbour, as so often for the Republican Party, was pleased to serve.

Now speculation has already begun over whether Barbour will run for president in 2012. (It’s hard to tell whether these reports stem from pundits desperate for a column or Republicans desperate for leader.) Regardless of whether this speculation is accurate—and Barbour isn’t exactly batting it down—it’s not quite right. The place for Barbour on the GOP’s 2012 ticket is the bottom, not the top.

Barbour is the GOP’s Mr. Fix-It. Sixteen years ago, when the party was in a similar position—booted out of the White House, out of money, and ideologically incoherent—he was elected to run the Republican National Committee, promising strong executive leadership to rebuild the party. In his first two years, he bailed out the nearly bankrupt National Republican Campaign Committee while cajoling, strategizing, fundraising, and bullying fractious Republicans back into the majority. Newt Gingrich was the bullhorn of the 1994 Republican revolution, but Barbour was the guy who paid for the bullhorn.

The 61-year-old Barbour has had many incarnations: director of the Mississippi census at the age of 22, lawyer in the family law practice, failed Senate candidate, Reagan White House official. Now, after a successful lobbying stint at the BGR Group—started as Barbour, Griffith, and Rogers—and with a respected record as governor, Barbour is back on the Hill. He testifies on cap-and-trade legislation and chats about Russia with Sean Hannity. He rides the airwaves slamming the Obama administration’s spending habits, casting them exactly as he did the Clinton economic package in 1993—Obama, like Clinton, could “charm the skin off a snake.” 

All of which prompts conservatives to cry, Haley’s comet is streaking! He’s a strong voice in a leaderless party, and as leading 2012 contenders self-destruct, flirt with fringe theories, and attack one another, there sits Mr. Fix-It, now a successful elected executive, conveniently term-limited in 2011. Even opponents are impressed, or at least they say they are. “He’s an unusual combination of someone who’s really good on policy, really good on politics, and really good on TV,” says Democratic lobbyist Anthony Podesta. “And everybody likes him.”

Here’s the problem. Over three decades in politics, Barbour may have accumulated too much baggage to withstand the scrutiny of a presidential campaign. Besides, he is way too good a vice presidential candidate to waste at the top of the ticket.

The baggage can be described by two simple words on a piece of campaign literature: tobacco lobbyist. (This story does that one better and refers to him as “a millionaire tobacco lobbyist.”) In 1997, Barbour helped five companies negotiate their $368.5 billion settlement with the state attorneys general—and slipped a $50 billion tax credit into a comprehensive tobacco bill, which was later rescinded when legislators found out.

If anyone in American politics could talk his way out of this, it’s Barbour: He was just fighting for the hard-working American tobacco farmer, keeping the government from meddling in American business, etc. But it’s unlikely. The public now rates cigarette companies down with the financial services industry as the two most-hated demons of corporate America.

And the list goes on. In the late 1990s, he raised millions of dollars for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, later disgraced. He represented Mexico in the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which wouldn’t go over so well with the GOP base. While at the RNC, he funneled $2.1 million to the group through dubious channels from a Hong Kong tycoon. These are things that, when brought up by the opposition repeatedly over a year and a half, start to weigh a presidential candidate down. In a running mate, they’re more forgivable.

Now, there are few hard-and-fast criteria for what vice presidents should look like. Conventional wisdom holds that their desirable qualities are almost entirely relative, determined by weaknesses of the nominee, balancing traits like age, gender, and geography. On that score, you can count on Barbour to pull in the “bubba vote”: Southerners dubious about Obama’s spending, as well as other stuff about Obama. Whoever the nominee is, Barbour’s comfort on-camera plus a real ability to connect with voters makes him an excellent presidential emissary—no Palin-esque disasters here—who could easily handle Joe Biden in a debate.

But wait: There’s more! As historian Allan Lichtman notes, the best running mate is also the ablest leader for the party, to carry the banner when the president’s term is up. By that metric, Ronald Reagan picked well with a nominal Southerner and former RNC chair, George H.W. Bush, who in turn helped tank his own re-election chances by sticking with the green and bumbling Dan Quayle. Barbour comes out well on this score. His leadership after Hurricane Katrina impressed Governing magazine enough to name him public official of the year in 2006, and he was re-elected by a healthy 58 percent in 2007. A Presbyterian deacon and Sunday school teacher, Barbour has genuine social-conservative credentials, but he has argued that the party shouldn’t rip itself apart over issues like abortion and gay marriage. Presiding over the Senate is the vice president’s only formal duty; if his ability to corral politicos into a simple and consistent message counts for anything, he’d at least discharge that responsibility with ease. “Plus, he is extraordinarily smart on policy issues,” says Republican rainmaker Fred Malek. Put him in charge of whatever.

And then there’s perhaps the most important criterion: money. What makes Barbour an improbable presidential candidate—a history of raising millions of dollars for clients and candidates—also makes him a huge asset to the presidential ticket, along with an excellent sense of where to spend it. He helped retake the House in 1994 by focusing the party on its ground game in the states. Could he do so again from the sidelines? Sure, but there’s no motivation like having your own name on the ballot (and he’s already got a constituency!).

Finally there’s the intangibles, as they call them on ESPN. As the party’s vice presidential candidate, Barbour could travel the country raising money, attending picnics, and easing tensions in the fractious GOP. And he would also make the choice for the top of the ticket a lot easier. Barbour would need someone Northern to run under, preferably one with business credentials—Mitt Romney isn’t looking too bad lately. Even Gov. Tim Pawlenty, not yet scarred by scandal, could be the fresh face to Barbour’s grizzled experience.

Whoever the choice is, with Haley Barbour as his (or her?) running mate, the Republican presidential candidate will have one less thing to worry about.