Michael Bonfigli
Mississippi governor and former Republican Party chairman Haley Barbour spoke at a Monitor breakfast on Wednesday.

GOP can yet prevail in a diverse America, Barbour asserts

The nation's changing demographics won't be a permanent roadblock to a Republican comeback, the former party chairman said Wednesday at a Monitor breakfast.

Mississippi governor and former Republican Party chairman Haley Barbour doesn't put much stock in a Democratic strategist's prediction that the GOP is destined to wander in the political wilderness for decades as a result of changing voter demographics.

In fact, he dismisses it.

“In politics, nothing is ever as bad as it seems and never as good as it seems,” Governor Barbour told reporters Wednesday at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast.

Amid post-election soul-searching by Republicans, who for most of the past 30 years have not been accustomed to being the minority party, comes a salt-in-the-wound new book by Democratic activist James Carville, “40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation.” In it, he argues that “the demographic foundations of the Republican Party are crumbling.” Among other things, Mr. Carville notes the Republican Party’s especially weak standing among young and nonwhite voters.

GOP voter identification on the downswing

Some 39 percent of voters identify with the Republican Party versus 53 percent with the Democrats, according to 2009 polling data from the Gallup Organization. In 2001, by contrast, the parties were evenly matched. Among young people ages 18 to 29, only 32 percent say they are Republicans, down 9 percentage points since 2001. Among nonwhite voters of all ages, just 21 percent say they are Republicans.

Barbour, who served as chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) from 1993 to 1997 and before that was political director in Ronald Reagan’s White House, acknowledges that “demographics certainly matter.” But he also argues that his party’s performance among various groups of voters does not have to remain at its current depressed level.

“I don’t believe, from my experience in politics, that voters of demographic groups, because they went in one way in one election, are going to necessarily be that way every election,” he says. “Except for the African American-vote, which is the most monolithic demographic group, a lot of these voters move around depending on who the candidate is, what the issues are.”

Governors' races in 2010 will be key

Barbour argues that statehouse races will be key to his party’s efforts to rebuild.

“I am actually optimistic about the party’s future. We have two very, very competitive governor's races this year. At this stage, Republicans are ahead in both of them – New Jersey and Virginia,” Barbour says. “We have 36 governors' races in 2010, and I see those, the governors, as the most critical office for rebuilding the party.” He refers to this as a “grass-roots-up” strategy.

The governor dodged reporters’ efforts to get him to comment on the performance of Michael Steele, the current party chairman. Barbour notes that when he was RNC chairman he was criticized even by his friends. “I am not going to try [to] critique somebody else,” Barbour says.

Gradations of conservatism

The Republican stalwart did call for his party to tolerate different views.

“For a party that got 60 percent of the vote for president in my lifetime, it is silly to think everyone is going to agree on everything. We are not. In a two-party system, both parties are coalitions. We are the conservative party of the United States; the Democrats are the liberal party of the United States. And within our party, there are going to be a lot of people who are not conservative enough to get elected to Congress from Sugarland, Texas,” Barbour says.

Sounding at times like potential presidential candidate himself, the term-limited Barbour offered sharp critiques of Barack Obama’s policies.

“[Bill] Clinton’s proposals were liberal but not nearly as far left as Obama’s. I can remember when President Clinton said the era of big government is over. President Obama is offering us a size of government beyond anything that any Democrat or Republican has ever campaigned for,” he says. “There is nobody who has ever been willing to go out and campaign for a government as enormous, expensive, in debt, or as much in control of the American economy – whether it is healthcare, energy, or Wall Street.”

Barbour also was outspoken about Obama administration proposals to counter climate change.

“It is an issue that has to be addressed, but the cost of what the president has proposed is so enormous that it is an awful attempt at a solution,” he says. “The energy policy of America ought to be more American energy, more affordable energy. Obama’s policy is more expensive energy and it will reduce the amount of American energy.”

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