Comparisons for the next presidential campaign can be drawn from most any of its predecessors in American history. But lately, the 2012 Republican field is looking a lot like the Republican field of 1968.
The resurgence of Newt Gingrich is similar to, if less serious, than the comeback of Richard Nixon, and Mitt Romney’s presence is easily likened to… well, Romney (his dad, George, that is). Chris Christie might be a 1968 Ronald Reagan-like figure in this allegory: too little experience to be nominated at the time but a right-wing darling from a liberal state who wraps his ideology in a reassuring über-confidence (despite his recent stumble with losing Race to The Top education funds).
But most of all, 1968 was the year the Republican Party introduced America to Spiro T. Agnew, who would become the second vice president to resign from office (surprisingly not Aaron Burr, the sitting veep who iced the guy on the $10 bill, but John C. Calhoun, who resigned for a seat in the Senate). Agnew didn’t resign for shooting anyone or for another political office; he resigned because during his brief stint as Maryland’s governor, he was on the take and evaded taxes.
That’s the thing about Agnew. He was a political shooting star, akin to the recent Bobby Jindal and Scott Brown boomlets. Except he didn’t burn out before he could get to the executive branch. Agnew was elected governor in 1966, his first star turn after being Baltimore County Executive, and though he didn’t much impress anyone with his intellect or his abilities, he was beloved by the conservative base. When Nixon was in need of VP and didn’t much like his choices, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller enticed him to pick Spiro, and a few months later, he was a heartbeat from the presidency.
Many of the less distinguished members of the 2012 Republican field have similarities to Agnew, but the person most like him is Sarah Palin. In 2008, she was practically his mirror image, and still today, after her time as governor extended little beyond her ticket’s defeat, she’s at the same level of executive experience. And as she derides the media and wards off any questions from news outlets that aren’t paying her, Palin carries on the spirit of Spiro every single day.
The latest Republican to rattle the 2012 cage is Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and he, too, has his 1968 doppelganger: George Wallace, the race-warrior/demagogue who moonlighted as the governor of Alabama. Though Wallace was a Dixiecrat-turned-independent candidate and actually hurt the Republicans in Electoral College math, the Party of Lincoln slowly integrated his vituperative into their mainstream over the years, which was the only kind of integration Wallace could appreciate.
Now, there have been many Southern candidates since 1968—in fact, more than half of the presidents since Nixon have claimed the South as their home. Yet Barbour might be the first since Wallace to wear his unreconstructed Southerner attitude so blatantly on his sleeve. Here he is in a recent interview:
“And if I decide to run for president… what you see is what you get, and I am from Mississippi, I do have a southern accent. I was a lobbyist and a pretty damned good one…. And I will tell you this—the next President of the United States on January 21, 2013—is going to start lobbying. He’s going to be lobbying Congress, he’s going to be lobbying other countries. He’s going to be lobbying the business community. He’s going to be lobbying the labor unions, the governors, because that’s what presidents do, and I feel like it’s an advantage for me to have the chance to do that.”
That’s the thing about Barbour: he’s a former big shot lobbyist. He managed to sandwich in a chairmanship of the Republican National Committee in that time. Then he decided to leave Washington and become governor of his home state.
Yet Barbour didn’t leave DC behind completely. After Mark Sanford couldn’t stop hiking the Appalachian Trail (read: Absconding For Argentina For Trysts With His Latin Lover) Barbour took over the Republican Governor’s Association in 2009. Funds at his direction helped elected Chris Christie in New Jersey and Bob McDonnell in Virginia. In July, the RGA announced it had $40 million on hand for 2010. This makes Barbour one of the major money-dispensers of this pre-presidential election cycle.
So essentially, Barbour is a George Wallace who’s a Washington insider. But he gets extra Wallace points for his unabashed Southernism. In the previously mentioned interview, Barbour also said, “As far as Southern accents and Mississippi, this country may be looking for the anti-Obama in 2012. Don’t know. Could be.”
Really? Earlier this year, when Virginia Gov. McDonnell restored the practice of issuing a proclamation to recognize Confederate History Month that didn’t mention the evils of slavery—there was an appropriate uproar throughout his state. Barbour, on the other hand, told CNN he saw nothing wrong with it. He did not spit the tobacco from his lip, but you got his point.
In the long run, Barbour might just be as dangerous a demagogue as Wallace was in 1968. In another interview with Human Events, he claimed the Republican Party’s rise in the South had nothing to do with Democrats embracing civil rights—this after the states’ rights Southern Strategy of 1968 forever recast the Grand Old Party of the Union as the standard of Dixie.
Even Glenn Beck is in on the act. Last week, he linked to a post asserting that his Lincoln Memorial rally was about “attacking the enemy at the foundations of their power, their claim to race as a permanent trump card, their claim to the civil rights movement as a permanent model to constantly be transforming a perpetually unjust society.”
“The ONLY guy to actually get it!” Beck wrote when he posted the link to Twitter.
Maybe not the only. Wait ’til we hear more from Haley Barbour.