The Lobbyist in Chief

THE LOBBYIST IN CHIEF…. In 2010, the GOP base made it clear it prefers a certain kind of candidate. Conservatives like “insurgents” and “outsiders,” who have no use for the entrenched Washington establishment and its corrupt power structure.

It’s against this backdrop that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) thinks he can win the Republican presidential nomination, despite being the exact opposite of what the base says it’s looking for.

He became wealthy as a lobbyist, representing tobacco companies and foreign governments. A former Republican Party chairman, he would seem the ultimate Washington insider. A white Southerner, he has faced questions about his remarks on race.

As he steps closer to becoming a presidential candidate, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi has some explaining to do. And rather than running away from his background, he is embracing it.

A lobbyist? Well, he knows how to promote an agenda. An insider? He knows how government works and how to get things done for the American people. A Southerner? So were Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

I tend to think his controversial past on race — he’s kept a confederate flag autographed by Jefferson Davis in his office — will be his undoing, but even if we put that aside, it’s awfully tough to imagine Republicans craving an aggressive outsider and then nominating a D.C. corporate lobbyist for president.

To be sure, it’s not impossible. Last year, Indiana Republicans, dominated by Tea Partiers, said they were looking for someone ready to break with the past, question long-held assumptions, and bring a fresh perspective to the entrenched insiders in Congress. They then nominated and elected Dan Coats — a retired senator and corporate lobbyist who didn’t even want to live in Indiana anymore.

But Barbour’s job is tougher. Coats faced weak primary opponents, and after the primary, he ran in a “red” state in a GOP year. Barbour will have to overcome stronger primary opponents, who’ll be better positioned to go after the governor’s past.

It’s going to be a tough record to shake. When oil prices come up, voters will be reminded that Barbour was a well-paid lobbyist for energy companies. When immigration comes up, voters will hear about Barbour’s lobbying work for the Mexican government.

Consider what happened last week when Barbour suggested he’s been to the Pentagon and is confident there are cost savings to be found. Bill Kristol not only blasted the policy position, he said it “raises the question of how much time Barbour has spent at the Pentagon — apart from time spent lobbying for defense contractors or foreign governments.”

Barbour seems to think his record as a lobbyist is a point of pride. That’s fine. But he also seems to think it’ll help his presidential campaign, and that optimism appears to be misplaced.