The rise and fall of Haley Barbour as a presidential candidate is one of the saddest stories of our times. Here was a man of great charm and Southern garrulousness who had absolutely no business running for president. His name is linked with no great (or even modest) achievement. He is not the reform governor of Mississippi or the education governor of Mississippi or the anything governor Mississippi. He is merely the governor of Mississippi, the sorriest state of our great nation — last or nearly so in many indices and first only in obesity (2010). Nothing at all commended Barbour for the presidency.
And yet, his announcement that he would not, after all, run for president was greeted as major news. The Post played an analysis of the announcement on page one, clearly an attempt to stump historians of the future. (Barbour? Who is this Barbour?) Politico gave the non-event its usual encyclopedic coverage. The New York Times played the story prominently on its Web page and the Daily Beast told us that Barbour’s wife had herself not wanted him to run for president. Neither had almost anyone else.
Barbour has been a Washington lobbyist. This is not necessarily a dishonorable profession, but it is not usually seen as a stepping stone to the White House. He lobbied for cigarette companies, which is perfectly legal but clearly immoral and this, too, might have been held against him. He has been chairman of the Republican Party, and while that is an important post, no one, with the exception of George H.W. Bush has gone from there to the White House — and Bush was vice president first.
Barbour’s lack of presidential credentials is impressive. Still, his candidacy was taken seriously. This was somewhat because politics has become like sports and the trivial is mistaken for the momentous, if only for a day or two. The other and more important reason is that the GOP is bereft of talent. It has almost no bench. The names being mentioned as likely presidential candidates include the imbecilic and the demagogic (that’s you, Trump) and the so very obscure that no one outside their immediate family knows who they are. None are governors of the very important states — New York, California, Texas, Florida or Illinois — which would have produced instant name recognition, and while some, such as Mitch Daniels, are respected for their abilities, they lack the requisite idiocy to make it through the GOP primaries and caucuses. It is remotely possible that Daniels believes human beings have contributed to global warming.
This explains the fuss over Barbour. For all his deficits, he is a man of refreshing conventionality. His crusade was to make money. His passion was for politics. He likes the action. There is nothing of the lemming in him, no devotion to some cracked cause (birther, taxes, global warming) that propels him off the cliff of passionate, if ludicrous, principle. Barbour is a nostalgic figure, a denizen of the cloak room, the lounge, the late- night meeting. He is the personification of old-timey politics, virtually an anachronism. He was embraced by others like him — and by the press, which favors his kind of politician — but it was not enough. The zealots, he knew, would have mugged him in Iowa. This would be no fun at all.
The loss of Haley Barbour is no tragedy. But the fact that his candidacy was taken so seriously is a sad commentary on what has happened to the Republican Party. Smart people have been chased away and zealots command. They set the agenda, insist on adherence to stubborn principles — never, never raise taxes — and impose cultural requirements that produce intolerance, not to mention heaps of hypocrisy. The saying that in the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man is king applies to Barbour. In the valley of GOP midgets, he is a veritable giant.