Adieu, Adieu, Remember Me

After four and a half great years at the Spectator, I will be moving on to the Washington Examiner starting Monday, where I will continue to blog and write about politics and policy.  It’s been fun working with the wonderful group of people here at the Spectator. I especially want to thank Wlady for his tireless labor on the magazine and Website and for all the times he stayed up waiting for me to file. He’s not only an amazing editor, but as good a guy as you’ll ever meet. And finally, thanks to everybody for reading and commenting on my posts over the years.

A Wonk in Sheep’s Clothing

From the April 2011 issue of The American Spectator

In news accounts assessing the likely 2012 Republican presidential field, there are a number of descriptions typically associated with Mississippi governor Haley Barbour. White Southerner. Thick accent. Gifted fundraiser. Connected. Former lobbyist. But when you ask those who know him, another characterization comes to mind.

“He’s a policy wonk, which a lot of people don’t realize,” said Ed Gillespie, a political strategist and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, who has known Barbour since 1993 and considers him a mentor. “[People] tend to think of Haley Barbour as very politically savvy and good on television and smooth, but he really is a policy wonk at heart.”

Mississippi native Ricky Mathews was publisher of the Sun Herald in 2005 when Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast, and he got to know Barbour by serving on a commission the governor put together to help manage the response and recovery.

“He has a mind like a steel trap,” Mathews recalled. “He remembers facts and numbers like no one I’ve ever come in contact with.”

Jim Nicholson, who served under Barbour at the RNC from 1993 to 1997 and then succeeded him as chair, offers a similar impression.

“He is a fascinating person,” Nicholson said of Barbour. “His ‘hail fellow well met’ persona belies an acute intelligence. I mean, he is really bright and grasps complex matters and complex issues fairly quickly and can articulate and advocate very effectively….A lot of people don’t know that because of that personality and thick Southern accent, so he sneaks up on a lot of people with that brightness of his.”

Barbour’s chances of winning the presidency — or even capturing the GOP nomination — have largely been written off, and not without good reason. After all, he’d be a white guy from the deep South challenging the first black president, a dealmaker who was one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington seeking the nation’s highest office in the midst of a fierce anti-establishment backlash. The “dean” of the Washington press corps, the late David Broder, recently branded the Mississippian a “a long-shot possibility for the nomination.” In an appearance on Meet the Press in February, Barbour was asked about a Gallup poll showing him with just 3 percent support in an early survey of Republican voter preferences, and he quipped: “I didn’t know my family was that big.”

Yet there are also reasons to believe that his chances are being significantly underestimated — at least when it comes to the GOP primaries. In a wide-open field in which all the potential candidates have flaws, it’s hard to write anybody off to begin with, and that’s particularly true in Barbour’s case. As one of the party’s most talented fundraisers, Barbour should have plenty of money at his disposal in any presidential bid. If his successful stewardship of the RNC when the GOP took Congress in 1994 and of the Republican Governors Association in the stellar 2009 and 2010 years are any indication, Barbour would run a top-flight presidential campaign organization. His network is extensive and he’s beloved within the party. And in a party that has a tendency to nominate candidates who are seen to have paid their dues, he has as good a claim as anybody running. At the same time, he has a story to tell as someone who combines conservative views with demonstrated competence as an executive and two terms as governor.

“We can’t make the changes to public policy that are necessary to get America on the right track without electing a new president,” Barbour told me when I spoke to him in late February during a visit to Washington, D.C. for a governors’ conference.

It’s also clear that the policy emphasis will be part of how he’ll respond to questions about the role of race in the campaign. “The hard left who would never vote for me want to make it a big issue,” he said. “They want to make race a proxy issue, because they don’t want the election to be about public policy. They don’t want the election to be about Obama’s policies. They want some charade about something else. And when you have a white Christian conservative Republican from Mississippi, the easiest straw man to throw out is race.”

HALEY BARBOUR WASN’T ALWAYS so interested in public policy, or even in politics. Unlike those who will tell you that they were motivated to get into the field due to ideological beliefs or some higher principles, he’s quite candid that he sort of fell into it.

“Politics wasn’t talked about a lot around our house; Daddy died when I was a little bitty boy,” Barbour, now 63, told me. (His father passed away when he was two.) “I was more interested growing up in baseball, in football, in student government. Not particularly in anything else.”

That began to change in 1965 when his older brother came back from the Army a Goldwater Republican. Soon, his brother decided to run for mayor of their hometown of Yazoo City. Republicans didn’t have a line on the ballot, so he ran as an independent, and won — becoming the youngest mayor in the state at 27. “I helped him in his campaign, had a good time,” Barbour said.

In the summer of 1968, his brother learned that the Mississippi state GOP was looking for help during the election that would see Richard Nixon capture the White House. The young Haley, then an undergraduate at the University of Mississippi, decided to take the fall off and work for the party.

“That’s how I began to consider myself a Republican,” Barbour said. “That I helped my brother and then I went to work for the party and then one thing led to another….[It] all evolved. If you would have asked me when I was 15 years old, or 18 years old, or even 21 years old, ‘Do you think you’ll have a career in politics?’ I would have laughed.”

During the 1970s, after graduating from law school and working as a lawyer, Barbour became more active in state and national politics — he said he worked for Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1976 and later ran seven states for Gerald Ford. Though he described himself as a “Reaganite” during this period when we spoke, he actually worked for Reagan’s rival in the 1980 primaries, John Connally.

In 1982, he sought office himself, challenging the octogenarian incumbent Sen. John Stennis. While Barbour lost in a landslide, his large cash haul impressed the party. The race also produced a helpful artifact for Barbour — a recorded video endorsement from President Ronald Reagan, which reemerged on the Internet this February.

Three years after receiving his endorsement, Barbour actually joined Reagan’s White House as political director. Future Indiana governor Mitch Daniels was his boss, and they fostered a friendship that continues to this day. The two of them also worked closely with Andy Card, who went on to become chief of staff to President George W. Bush. “It was heady stuff for a boy from Yazoo City, Mississippi, I would have to tell you,” he said of his time at the White House.

“I WAS NOT SATISFIED with the Bush presidency,” Barbour told me, referring to the elder Bush. When he ran for chairman of the RNC in 1993, he argued that the party was rejected by voters in the 1992 elections because it didn’t adhere to its principles and stand for anything.

“I tried to recreate the party around self-sufficient state parties, small donors,” Barbour recalled of his fundraising strategy. “When the other side has got the White House, there are no big donors, because you’ve got nothing to sell access to.”

Barbour became a large part of the Republican effort to oppose President Clinton, and helped craft a strategy to take back control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years, working closely with Newt Gingrich and other congressional Republicans to establish the GOP as the “party of ideas.”

Jim Nicholson, who wore several hats at the RNC at the time, including vice chairman, said Barbour deserves a lot of the credit for the Republican takeover. Not only did Barbour see the opportunity, but he was also able to raise money and build an organization that allowed Republicans to take advantage of the climate.

In 1994, Barbour faced stiff opposition within the RNC for wanting to take out bank loans allowing them to maximize the amount of money they could spend on competitive House races. “His whole mantra that fall of 1994, was, ‘We’ve got to strike while the iron is hot,'” Nicholson remembered. “Haley prevailed, and it was the right thing to do. It helped us in key races.”

Barbour’s interest in public policy was apparent when he led the RNC, as he jumped into the day’s debates in a way that isn’t all that common for party chairmen. In December 1993, freshman Pennsylvania representative Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, who cast the tie-breaking vote for the Clinton budget plan, which included a massive tax hike, became the subject of an RNC attack ad. Barbour accepted her challenge to a debate on a Philadelphia-area radio station, leading to a one-hour back-and-forth on federal entitlement spending that survives online thanks to the C-SPAN web archives.

Margolies-Mezvinsky was defeated in the November 1994 Republican tidal wave, and when the GOP attempted to implement its agenda, Barbour once again played a central role in the debates, particularly when it came to fighting the media’s characterization of the proposed Medicare reforms. When the New York Times published a front-page story in September 1995 headlined, “House G.O.P. Plan Doubles Premiums of Medicare Users,” Barbour fired back with a letter to the editor citing data from the Health Care Financing Administration showing that premiums had nearly doubled over the preceding seven years, meaning this was the continuation of a trend rather than a new development.

Barbour also pushed back hard against the idea that Republicans were proposing cutting Medicare, emphasizing that they were merely slowing the rate of increase. He grabbed attention by taking out a series of ads promising to pay $1 million to anybody who could prove the following statement false: “In November 1995, the U.S. House and Senate passed a balanced budget bill. It increases total federal spending on Medicare by more than 50 percent from 1995 to 2002.” While the ad produced a lot of claimants, and a series of lawsuits that dragged on for years (several Democratic members of Congress sued), ultimately they lost in court and the RNC kept the $1 million.

One of his efforts to foster conservative policy ideas ended up embroiling Barbour in a scandal. In 1993, Barbour used $100,000 in RNC “seed” money to start a think tank that held “grassroots” forums throughout the United States aimed at developing policy ideas. The National Policy Forum was established as a nonpartisan, nonprofit institution, but Barbour served as chairman of both the NPF and RNC simultaneously, which would come back to haunt him. (Future UN ambassador John Bolton served as president of the group for part of this time.)

In 1997, the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Governmental Affairs began looking into allegations about Asian attempts to influence the 1996 elections. With the Clinton administration under fire, Democrats honed in on Barbour’s solicitation of a $2.1 million loan guarantee from Hong Kong businessman Ambrous Young, to the National Policy Forum, in 1994. The money he obtained from Young through a U.S. subsidiary was then used to pay off a $1.6 million debt to the RNC, money that was then available for the party to use on elections. Democrats argued that this was a complex way around the ban on foreign political contributions.

Anybody who wants to get an idea of how Barbour would hold up under scrutiny during a presidential race should visit the C-SPAN online archives and view his July 1997 testimony before the committee. During the hearing, Barbour said he was outraged by the charges, which he felt smeared him and besmirched the good work of the National Policy Forum, yet he calmly responded to them. He advanced two central arguments — that he was not aware at the time that the funds he was soliciting came from a foreign source, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because as a nonprofit, NPF was allowed to solicit foreign donations.

His performance at the hearings earned him a begrudging respect in some unlikely places. “Point by point, with color charts for the senators and glossy handouts for reporters, Haley Barbour today rebutted Democratic assertions that the Republican Party accepted illegal foreign contributions when he was the party’s chairman,” the New York Times‘s lead read. The article marveled at his “star quality,” and noted that “Mr. Barbour’s preparation for his performance — every word carefully considered, every inflection clearly rehearsed — would have made an accomplished musician proud.” Another New York Times article described how he worked the Democratic side of the committee “nimbly as a dealer cracks the cellophane from a fresh deck of cards…”

In the end, the Republican-led committee found that Barbour’s actions were “neither illegal nor improper,” while the Democratic minority dissented. By this time, the NPF’s nonprofit status had already been revoked by the Internal Revenue Service.

Though the organization is long since defunct, it did produce a 1996 book, authored by Barbour, called Agenda for America, laying out a detailed set of policy proposals for Republicans.

IN 1991, BARBOUR had formed a lobbying firm, BGR Group, which he could devote his full energies to after his term as chairman of the RNC expired in 1997. In 1999, Barbour sold the firm to Interpublic Group for $20 million, while remaining on, and in 2001 Fortune magazine named it the most powerful lobbying firm in Washington. The roster of big-name clients — including large oil, tobacco, and pharmaceutical companies, as well as foreign governments — proved very lucrative, but his lobbying career will also be the biggest obstacle he faces running for president, as his work will provide a treasure trove of opposition research material for his rivals.

While Barbour may have a sympathetic ear among Republican primary voters when it comes to attempts to portray him as a racist, they could be a lot less forgiving when it comes to lobbying. There was a time when Republican voters were inclined to defend large corporations, but ever since the 2008 Wall Street bailout, there’s been a growing recognition that big business is perfectly willing to set aside free market principles and cozy up to government when it sees it as in its interest to do so. Indeed, this recognition was one of the driving forces behind the emergence of the Tea Parties. In February of this year, presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty opened his speech to a Tea Party Patriots summit in Phoenix by lumping “big bailed out business” together with “big unions” and “big government” as part of “a royal triangle of greed.” If there’s one criticism that Barbour is most vulnerable to when it comes to his conservative credentials, it’s that when business interests have clashed with limited government principles, he has often sided with business.

In 2009, he vetoed an eminent domain reform bill that would have made it harder for the state to take private property for private uses. Barbour argued that, if enacted, the legislation would have been “catastrophic” for the economy of his state, as it would discourage large corporations such as Toyota, Nissan and PACCAR from building there. In 2010, he pushed for subsidies for Kior, a biofuels company, to build three plants in Mississippi. And in February of this year, he defended farm subsidies in an interview with the Daily Caller. The Washington Examiner‘s Tim Carney, who has written extensively about the intersection between big business and big government, wrote: “If the Tea Party still has some wind, it’s hard to see how Barbour gets anywhere near the GOP nomination.”

When I asked him to respond to charges that he’s a big business Republican, Barbour recalled a speech he gave to the Business Roundtable in the 1990s in which he “told them that the Republican Party was the party of small business, not big business, because big business doesn’t have a party.” He recalled a headline in the financial press after the speech: “GOP to Big Business: Drop Dead.”

“I am a small business Republican,” Barbour insisted. “I am free market capitalist and if it gets down to being one Republican politician in the United States who is a free market capitalist, it’d be me. Fortunately, there are lots of others like me. But I am very very aware that sometimes big business’s agenda and even more often their political support is not aligned with conservatism or small government, or lower taxes even much less, less spending. But those are the things that I’ve always supported.”

During the 2010 election cycle, Barbour was smart enough to recognize the importance of the Tea Parties, and, unlike other national Republican leaders, did not get in scuffles over their influence. He argued that party leaders should butt out of primaries and allow voters to decide, and played down any talk of an intraparty rift.

In a January 2009 interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Steve Moore, Barbour himself seemed to acknowledge the difficulty of running for president as a onetime lobbyist. “[T]he American people aren’t likely to ever elect a former Washington lobbyist as president,” he was quoted as saying.

When I asked him if anything had changed in the past two years, he told me, “If I said that, it was as a joke.” He continued, “When I ran for governor, everybody in Washington and New York said, ‘Oh, a lobbyist can’t get elected governor.’ Well, I was elected, and I defeated a sitting Democratic governor by seven points who spent millions of dollars attacking me for being a lobbyist of all the clients I represented.”

Barbour notes that while he represented some of the nation’s largest pharmaceutical companies as a lobbyist, as governor of Mississippi, he implemented a Medicaid reform that emphasized purchases of generic drugs to save the program money.

“Once I got elected governor of Mississippi, my only client was the people of Mississippi,” he said. “If I’m elected president, or if anybody else is elected president, the day afterward, they’re gonna be lobbying. They’re going to be lobbying Congress, they’re going to be lobbying business, they’re going to be lobbying labor, they’re going to lobbying our foreign allies and adversaries. Because that’s what presidents do, they advocate. And lobbying is just a form of advocacy.”

BARBOUR’S CONNECTIONS IN WASHINGTON came in especially handy during Katrina. When the storm slammed the Gulf Coast in August 2005, Barbour’s calm and steady leadership — and reluctance to criticize the federal response — stood in stark contrast to the performance of elected officials in the neighboring state of Louisiana. At the same time, he was able to use his muscle in Washington to secure $24 billion in federal funds for Mississippi.

Six days after Katrina, newspaper publisher Ricky Mathews convened a meeting with Barbour and key officials to discuss the response. “I’ve often described Gov. Barbour after that meeting as being a man on a mission,” Mathews said.

Barbour soon put together the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal, to write a report assessing the state’s needs by December.

“It’s often been said about him that he’s thinking several steps ahead, so as we were uncovering what our needs might be, he was multiple steps ahead of most people trying to understand what were the policy issues related to that,” Mathews said. “He was able to move from a conversation with a mayor to a conversation with the president effortlessly, and to do it in a way that wasn’t full with a lot of egos.”

Brian Sanderson, a Mississippi lawyer who served on the same commission as a general counsel and then worked in the governor’s offices for several months after as the deputy director of the office of recovery, also had a positive take on Barbour.

“The governor built credibility after Katrina by giving an honest and clear assessment of the situation,” he said. “He didn’t sugarcoat the reality of what nature had dealt to us or false hope. He didn’t engage in any of the political maneuvers that other governors did at the time to gain an upper hand.”

Though Barbour received a lot of praise for his handling of Katrina — Governing magazine named him one of the “2006 public officials of the year” — he’s also attracted criticism. In September 2005, the New York Times raised questions about $568 million in contracts for debris removal that had been granted to Florida-based AshBritt, which had been a client of Barbour’s lobbying firm. Asked about the report, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office told me that the contracts for cleanup were handled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, not Barbour.

Quin Hillyer, a senior editor at the Spectator and senior editorial writer at the Washington Times, has argued that Barbour’s post-Katrina image has been elevated by a savvy PR effort, when in reality, the western part of the Gulf Coast has not recovered that well. “Has anybody actually driven along the Mississippi Coast from Waveland to Gulfport?” he wrote. “In terms of life, there’s almost no there there. Vast stretches of empty lots stretch undisturbed by hand of man. Oft-criticized New Orleans has recovered much better than the Mississippi coast.”

Mathews told me that there are a number of reasons why that portion of the coast has not been rebuilt, but the biggest issue remains that insurance on the coast is either nonexistent or prohibitively expensive.

SINCE GETTING ELECTED governor in 2003, Barbour fought trial lawyers and signed one of the most restrictive tort reform laws in the nation, but it’s his changes to Medicaid that he’s more prone to touting these days, as the nation turns its focus to reforming entitlement programs that are the biggest drivers of deficits at the state and federal level.

“We have made big savings in Mississippi Medicaid by management despite the facts that we have some of the highest nursing home rates and some of the highest hospital reimbursement rates in the United States in the poorest state in the country,” Barbour boasted to me.

As governor, Barbour moved aggressively to reduce the state’s Medicaid rolls by making sure everybody receiving benefits was actually eligible. One way he accomplished that was to require all beneficiaries to have in-person meetings each year to establish their Medicaid eligibility, with exceptions made for those in nursing homes or with severe medical conditions that made them immobile. As mentioned earlier, he also increased the use of generic drugs. And he shifted some elderly Medicaid beneficiaries onto the Medicare prescription drug plan when that became available. That action, however, merely transferred the burden onto federal taxpayers — something that wouldn’t be an option for him if he were elected president.

All told, his reforms did contain the growth of Medicaid spending in the state. Between 2000 and 2004, the five years before he took over as governor, combined state and federal spending on Mississippi’s Medicaid program soared 62 percent cumulatively, according to data from the governor’s office. In the six years starting with his first full budget year in 2005 and ending in 2010, it’s grown a total of 20 percent. In three of those years (2006, 2007, and 2010), Medicaid spending actually shrunk.

Barbour points to his record on Medicaid as an example of how to save money on entitlements through effective management of the programs. He’s also been a longtime proponent of having the federal government block grant Medicaid money to states, to give governors more flexibility to contain spending.

When asked how the politics of the entitlement debate differ from 1995 and 1996, he argued that this time, there’s a much broader understanding of the severity of the debt crisis.

“We were not sitting on $14 trillion of debt,” Barbour said of the 1990s. “We were not running $5 trillion of deficits in less than four years. The idea of that would have been unimaginable in 1995/96. I believe the American people today realize the risk of continuing on this unsustainable path.”

ANY SERIOUS EFFORT to reduce spending would have to start with addressing health care costs, which, in addition to retiring Baby Boomers, is the primary driver of entitlement spending. When I asked Barbour to explain his views on reforming health care, he touted his proposed health insurance exchange for Mississippi. Health insurance exchanges are an essential part of the national health care law, as well as the legislation Mitt Romney signed in Massachusetts. But he insisted his proposal was different.

“A lot of governors like me, before ObamaCare was ever even birthed, much less passed, I was advocating having a health insurance exchange in Mississippi based on a model that the Heritage Foundation shared with a number of states, and was adopted first by Utah,” he said. “Voluntary. No subsidies. Market-driven. Consumer-driven. Capitalistic. Nonprofit managed health insurance exchange, because my biggest group of uninsured are the employees of small business. If I had a voluntary unsubsidized health insurance exchange to serve as sort of their broker through a portal it would be very similar to the federal employee health benefit plan, so companies could buy through that and a) reduce their administrative costs and b) make sure that everything was tax deductible to the company, and c) make sure everything was tax deductible to the employee.”

Such an idea isn’t unique among Republicans — Sen. Tom Coburn and Rep. Paul Ryan proposed something similar as part of their own GOP alternative to the national health care law, and Ryan integrated it into his “Roadmap” fiscal reform proposal. However, there are several problems with the exchange idea. The first is that it would be a major concession to the liberal point of view, which holds that in the absence of government intervention, the market won’t function for individual insurance. The second is that, even if it starts out completely well intentioned, establishing an exchange puts the infrastructure in place that allows future lawmakers to incrementally build on it — adding requirements that insurers cover certain benefits, starting to offer subsidies to lower-income individuals to purchase insurance on the exchange, and so on. Before too long, such an exchange could end up just like the Romney/Obama model. I asked Barbour about this danger, and he dismissed it.

“Not only do I not worry about that as long as I’m governor, I don’t worry about that in Mississippi,” he responded. “You should know when Heritage came and made the presentations to us, they told us Massachusetts is going to make this mandatory and they’re going to subsidize it. Now that’s one way you can do it. But, we’re talking about something totally different. Voluntary. Unsubsidized. And no, I don’t worry about that at all. What I worry is that the federal government is going to force subsidies down our throats and they’re gonna increase the number of people on Medicaid in Mississippi by 50 percent and cost us $443 million a year to pay the extra cost of Medicaid because of it, which is what it would cost us in year 10.”

IN ITS 2010 Fiscal Policy Report Card for America’s governors, the Cato Institute gave Barbour a ‘C’ grade, noting he “signed into law a tax increase on hospitals in 2008 and a tax increase on cigarettes of 50 cents per pack in 2009.” It also criticized him for allowing general fund spending to grow 42 percent between fiscal year 2004 and fiscal year 2008, before the recession hit — while noting that he has since reduced spending. The same report gave Pawlenty an ‘A’ grade.

When asked about the tax increases, Barbour said that he repeatedly resisted attempts to raise the cigarette tax in his first term. Yet, he continued, “When I ran for reelection I said a lot of people want us to raise the cigarette tax for health care policy reasons, because we had the second lowest cigarette tax in the United States. And I said I’m going to appoint a commission the first year of my second term to look at this. The commission reported and I told the legislature the commission had recommended a cigarette tax increase, and I proposed we go from 18 cents to 42. The legislature actually ended up going to 60, which was the Southern states average. But again, I said 100 times during this, this is for health policy reasons, not for budget reasons.”

On the hospital tax, he said the Cato report was misleading, though he was quick to add, “I’m not mad at them.” He explained that before he was governor, hospitals had suggested that they pay a provider fee to cover the matching money that the states had to pay under federal programs. Yet in 2005, the federal government disallowed this arrangement. So eventually, the state instituted a tax to make up the lost revenue, which he signed.

That said, it takes much less time for political opponents to say Barbour “raised cigarette and hospital taxes” than it does for him to explain the complexities of state and federal health care financing, so this would be another criticism he’d face in a presidential campaign.

When I asked Barbour whether he thought it was possible to get the nation’s debt under control without raising taxes, he spoke like a supply-sider. “I don’t think it’s possible if you raise taxes,” he said. “You’ve got to grow revenue, you got to have economic growth, and more job creation. Higher taxes makes that harder….My own view is that low taxes are essential to generating economic growth. I am a Reaganite about that. Reagan used to say we can grow ourselves out of the deficit and the Democrats would snicker. Well, I can tell you this, we can’t spend ourselves out of this deficit. People laugh out loud at that. There’s no snickering about that. That’s a hoot.”

LAST YEAR, Mitch Daniels jeopardized his potential presidential candidacy when he suggested to the Weekly Standard‘s Andrew Ferguson that there be a “truce” on social issues while the nation deals with the emergency of the fiscal crisis. His statement and subsequent attempts to explain it triggered a fierce backlash among social conservatives, and Barbour himself took heat when he rose to his friend’s defense.

Throughout his political career, Barbour has drawn a distinction between his own views on social issues and their place in electoral politics. As governor of Mississippi, he’s signed a number of pro-life bills, including an informed consent law and conscience protections. There’s only one abortion clinic left in Mississippi, according to Americans United for Life, which reports a 60 percent reduction in the state abortion rate over the last several years. Yet at the same time, Barbour has deemphasized abortion as a major electoral issue. After winning the chairmanship of the RNC in January 1993, according to a New York Times account, he told reporters, “If you make abortion the threshold issue for Republicans, you need your heads examined.” In June 2009, he gave a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, in which he said the party needed to be welcoming to pro-choice Republicans. I asked him about the distinction he’s drawn.

“The distinction is the distinction of spokesmanship,” he explained. “When I speak about my record, it i

DeMint’s Defense of RomneyCare is Ignorant…And Dangerous

Jennifer Rubin alerts me to these disturbing comments Sen. Jim DeMint made to the Hill in defense of RomneyCare:

“One of the reasons I endorsed Romney [in 2008] is his attempts to make private health insurance available at affordable prices,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), a GOP kingmaker.

DeMint blames Democrats in the Massachusetts State Legislature for adding many of the features to Romney’s plan that many on the right decry.

“It just depends on how he plays it. For me, I think he started with some good ideas that were essentially hijacked by the Democrat Legislature,” DeMint said.

To start with, blaming everything on the Democratic legislature is simply not an accurate account of what happened. Romney helped craft the basic architecture of the health care plan, and pursued it even though he knew that he was working with an overwhelming Democratic legislature who he knew would override his symbolic line-item vetoes of parts of his bill. He signed the bill with Ted Kennedy at his side, and did so knowing he wasn’t seeking reelection and that it would almost certainly fall on a Democratic governor to implement it. After signing it, Romney did a victory lap — boasting of his accomplishment in a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled, “Health Care for Everyone? We Found a Way.” He defended it throughout his last run for president. In a 2007 interview with Fox during his campaign, he said, “We found a way to get everybody in our state, Massachusetts, insured. I like the plan. I think it’s one of the best things we did in my administration.” He’s defended the individual mandate for years on conservative grounds, using the “responsibility” argument that was adopted by Democrats. He even declared in one GOP debate “I like mandates.” So it is simply ignorant to portray Romney as an innocent bystander and blame everything on Democrats.

But beyond being ignorant, DeMint’s comments are dangerous. I’ve long argued that the Massachusetts health care plan is not only toxic to Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy, but it could prove toxic to the entire Republican Party. If Romney is excused for crafting and signing the Massachusetts health care plan, it significantly undermines the case against ObamaCare and weakens the effort to repeal it. The reason is that opposition to ObamaCare will start to look increasingly political and less about principle. It’s true that a state mandate doesn’t raise the same Constitutional questions as the federal mandate, but it still is government forcing an individual to purchase a product. These comments are especially dangerous coming from DeMint, who is known as a leading conservative and ObamaCare opponent. Let’s hope it’s an isolated incident and not part of a broader trend. 

UPDATE: Over at the Hill, a source close to DeMint is pushing back against the way his comments have been interpreted. “It’s obvious Jim was just trying to be nice to the guy he backed over McCain, as many conservatives did in 2008,” the source said, according to the Hill. “But he would never consider backing Romney again unless he admits that his Massachusetts health care plan was a colossal mistake.” 

The Hill also prints DeMint’s full comments, which contain more qualifications for his defense of Romney’s involvement in the health care law:

One of the reasons I endorsed Romney is his attempts to make private health insurance available at affordable prices. He set the goal that all folks in Massachusetts would have affordable health insurance. By the time it got through the Democratic state legislature, it had all these mandates on it, requirements about what kind of policies would be bought — the same thing that happened up here — instead of getting people insured, it was a government takeover. So I applaud the goal — my goal is to have every American with a private health insurance plan that they can keep throughout their lives. And so, I still admire him for taking on the task, but I think it’s important to recognize that that’s not where we want our healthcare to go. States can compete with different plans, but we shouldn’t have anything like what they did in Massachusetts at the federal level.

McConnell Pushing Vote to Block the EPA from Regulating Carbon Emissions

When “cap and trade” failed to garner enough support in the Senate during the last Congress, it became clear that the only way the Obama administration would be able to execute its preferred energy policy would be to have the Environmental Protection Agency regulate carbon emissions, a possibility that EPA administrator Lisa Jackson hinted at from the first days of the Obama administration.

Today, GOP Senators hope to have a vote on a proposal to block this possibility, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell hoping to attach it to small business bill currently making its way through the chamber.

If that fails, Sen. James Inhofe said he will keep trying to attatch it to every bill that comes before the Senate.

UPDATE: McConnell’s office emailed to say that Democrats are likely to put off the vote again until after recess.

Scapegoating Mitch Daniels

Over the past year, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has been a case study in how not to seek the Republican presidential nomination — if indeed that is his intention.

Despite having a generally conservative governing record, in the run-up to a possible candidacy, Daniels has managed to alienate all parts of the GOP’s so-called “three-legged” stool. He has rattled economic conservatives by floating the possibility of a VAT tax, unnerved national security hawks by talking about defense cuts and seeming indifferent about foreign policy, and angered values voters by calling for a “truce” on social issues while the country confronts the national emergency of our fiscal crisis.

It’s the latter comments that have drawn the most heat, giving his potential rivals an easy opening at conservative events to say that yes, social issues are a priority.

But while Daniels has become a popular target for social conservatives who understandably don’t want to see their issues downplayed, the reality is that Daniels’ crime was to say explicitly what most of the other potential candidates are saying and doing implicitly — that is, emphasizing the importance of economic and fiscal issues over moral matters.

In a sense, Daniels has become a scapegoat for a gripe that social conservatives have had for decades — that Republicans take them for granted. Politicians count on them to get elected, but then spend most of their time pursuing other issues once in office.

A few days into the Reagan presidency, Washington Post correspondent and later biographer Lou Cannon spoke to someone he identified as a Reagan operative about the new administration’s relationship with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Cannon paraphrased the Reaganite as saying “that it was important for the administration to give this faction something so they wouldn’t turn on the president.” When a reporter asked, “What do you want to give them?” the operative responded: “Symbolism.”

During his presidency, Reagan began the tradition of “phoning in” to the largest annual anti-abortion event, the March for Life, a practice that extended into successive Republican presidencies. He nominated Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court over the objections of social conservatives. While he supported amending the Constitution to protect the life of the unborn and allow school prayer, he never exhausted much political capital to pursue those policies.

Another possible 2012 presidential candidate, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, has a strong pro-life record. Yet at the same time, Barbour has deemphasized abortion as a major electoral issue — and came under fire last fall when he defended his long time friend Daniels for his “truce” comments. Last month, in an interview for an upcoming magazine piece, I asked Barbour about this distinction he’s drawn.

“The distinction is the distinction of spokesmanship,” he explained. “When I speak about my record, it is a socially conservative record. I am very pro-life and have been consistently pro-life since [first running for office in] 1982.â€_ Having said that, elections ought to be about the issues that on are on the voters’ minds. If you’re smart in politics you want to be telling the people, ‘Here’s what I want to do to solve the problem that you’re really worried about.’ That’s what I think Mitch was saying.”

Despite the impression one might get from his public statements over the past year, Daniels himself has a pro-life record as governor. In 2005, he signed a law requiring doctors performing abortions to offer pregnant women the choice to view an ultrasound and hear the heartbeat of the fetus. In 2009, with his backing, Indiana enacted harsher penalties for acts of violence against unborn children.

Yet save Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, most Republican candidates in the 2012 field will tend to emphasize fiscal and economic issues over social issues. Four years ago, Mitt Romney tried to rebrand himself as a social conservative despite his liberal record on those issues. In this year’s speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Romney spoke almost exclusively about the economy and national security, with just one throwaway line about the unborn.  

Even when candidates have courted social conservatives, one has to wonder whether any of their promises are likely to happen were they to be elected president. For instance, Tim Pawlenty has said that as president he would support reinstating the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy.

Yet let’s just say Pawlenty is sworn-in as president in January 2013 with the health care law still in the books, the national debt at over $16 trillion, and unemployment at over 8 percent. In practice, would anybody expect a President Pawlenty to prioritize dealing with the gays in the military issue over repealing ObamaCare, reforming entitlements, or addressing the economy?

The conservative hero of the month, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, has a staunch anti-abortion background. Recently the liberal Mother Jones referred derisively to his “abortion crusade.” Yet after Walker was sworn into office, he didn’t start off with a major scuffle on abortion — he dealt with the fiscal emergency in his state by taking on the public sector unions.

And given the reality of Roe v. Wade, a president has limited ability to fight abortion beyond appointing judges and reinstating the Mexico City policy barring foreign aid from subsidizing abortions overseas (something Daniels supports).

Daniels’ much-derided comments on social issues (and his subsequent failure to frame them more diplomatically) may have been politically stupid. Yet they were largely an expression of the nature of our times — in which fiscal and economic issues are dominant — and a reflection of a broader long-term reality within the GOP.

If his remarks are deeply problematic, then the problem social conservatives have with the Republican Party is much deeper than Mitch Daniels.

More Barbour on Afghanistan

A few weeks ago, I spoke at length with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour for an upcoming magazine profile. You’ll have to wait until the April issue comes out to read the whole thing, but given today’s news, I thought I’d excerpt the part of our interview where he spoke about foreign policy and Afghanistan.

Here’s what Barbour told me when asked for his foreign policy views:

“I’m an open market, free trade, Reagan internationalist who believes in peace through strength, but I also come from the political school that in foreign policy and national security, politics all stop at the waters’ edge. Always believed that. I’m not going to shoot at the Obama administration about who lost Egypt. But I do think this — we have place in the world and it’s a very important place in the world that we need to perform our role as the beacon of freedom, democracy, and republican form of government. I think that’s critically important I worry about nation building. It is one thing to go in for peacekeeping and restore order and stability and then leave, or leave a small force. I’m not comfortable with nation building. I wasn’t when it was in Somalia. When I was chairman of the party though, you will see I never criticized Clinton, because I don’t think party chairman in particular have any business talking about foreign policy. But, in this world of terrorism, which is a threat that was we’ve only really been dealing with now for 10 years in this big sense, might that require some exception to the prohibition of nation building — prohibition’s too strong a word — to the general policy against nation building? It could, but we need to be very, very, careful before we go down that path and look (to see) if there are not other ways to accomplish defeating terrorists and eliminating the threat of terrorists. Short of trying to make Afghanistan the equivalent of Italy, that’s mission creep beyond anything imaginable, yet our ambassador told the president in 2009 we shouldn’t send more troops in there because the government doesn’t control the country. If the that’s the test in Afghanistan, it’s the wrong testâ€_.There has hardly ever been any government in Afghanistan that controlled the whole country.”

House Passes Three Week Spending Bill

Despite a large defection of Republicans, the House of Representatives has just passed a three-week spending bill aimed at averting a government shut down, by a margin of 271 to 158. In the end 54 Republicans voted against it, but 85 Democrats voted for it, enabling it to pass.

Are Republicans Losing the Budget Battle?

Later today, the House is set to vote on yet another short-term spending measure intended to avert a government shutdown by extending funding for another three weeks. While a number of House conservatives are expected to vote against it, it’s unclear whether those defections will be enough to kill the bill.

Over at RedState, Erick Erickson slams Republicans for acting like losers, and he notes an ABC poll showing:

Perceived non-cooperation on the budget deficit is one problem for the Republicans in Congress. Seventy-one percent say the GOP is not willing enough to compromise with Obama on the deficit; that even includes 42 percent of Republicans. Fifty-two percent overall also say Obama isn’t willing enough to compromise – still a majority, but a substantially smaller one. (Indeed, 30 percent call Obama “too willing” to make peace; half as many say that about the GOP.)

It follows that on another measure, the public by a 14-point margin says it’s more apt to hold the Republicans than Obama responsible if the budget impasse forces a partial government shutdown. (Then again, three in 10 also say a partial shutdown would be a good thing.)

Last December, Republicans convinced President Obama that they were “hostage takers” and he caved on extending the Bush era tax rates at all levels. Yet from the get go of the budget fight, Republicans have been made it clear that they’re unwilling to shut down the government, fearing that they’d lose the ensuing battle over public opinion as most people not named Newt Gingrich believe the GOP did in 1995/96. So that means that Congressional Democrats and the White House have very little reason to compromise, and if polling continues to look like this, they’ll have even less reason to do so.

Palestinian Street Celebrates Slaughter of Jews While Elites Rationalize It

While Palestinian leaders are issuing their standard official statements condemning all kinds of violence following the slaughter of 5 members of a Jewish family (including a three month old girl), Ynet reports:

Gaza residents from the southern city of Rafah hit the streets Saturday to celebrate the terror attack in the West Bank settlement of Itamar where five family members were murdered in their sleep, including three children.

Residents handed out candy and sweets, one resident saying the joy “is a natural response to the harm settlers inflict on the Palestinian residents in the West Bank.”

Of course, this is just typical Palestinian behavior, if you remember the video of them celebrating after Sept. 11th.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian media is attempting to do a two step — say they condemn the murders, but then blame Israel anyway. For instance, one Palestinian news editor says murder is wrong, but then goes on to point fingers at the occupation…and you guessed it, the loss of olive trees! Because human lives are just the same as olive trees.

Here‘s what he had to say, according to the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

“I don’t believe that the incident in Itamar is an act of resistance, but rather an act by individuals whom we condemn, in the event it was carried out by Palestinians. Stabbing children in their sleep is not a heroic act but rather that of the heartless, like some of the occupation soldiers and settlers, who murder children,” Hafez Barghouti, editor-in-chief of Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, wrote on Sunday.

He added that the “real murderers in Itamar are the zealous settlers and anyone who burned a tree, vandalized the cemetery in Awarta, forced out the residents of Khirbet Yanun, took control of a plot of land or robbed an olive harvest …. The act at Itamar was a message to the occupation and to the world … whose meaning is clear – the occupation must go.”

If you haven’t been following the story closely and have a very strong stomach, watch the video below (via BigPeace). You can get a sense of the brutality of the attack.

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CNN wins Misleading Headline Award

Here‘s the headline: “Tests detect radioactivity on 17 U.S. Navy crew members in Japan.”

Yet here is the actual story:

(CNN) — Tests detected low levels of radioactivity on 17 U.S. Navy helicopter crew members when they returned to the USS Ronald Reagan after conducting disaster relief missions in Japan, the military said Monday.

No further contamination was detected after the crew members washed with soap and water, the Navy said.