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Haley Barbour: It’s about policy, not race

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NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said in an interview that rising opposition to President Obama's free-spending policies has nothing to do with race, and dismissed rosy federal predictions that the recession is over as nothing more than "political happy talk."

"All through my political career, when the Democrats are losing the argument, they try to make the issue race. The issue's left and right, it's not black and white," the Republican governor said in an interview with editors and reporters Thursday at The Washington Times.

"This administration and this Congress have attempted the biggest lurch to the left of any administration in American history."

Weighing in on the Democratic charge this week by former President Jimmy Carter and others that GOP opposition to Mr. Obama's agenda is race-based, the head of the Republican Governors Association said thousands of health care reform opponents turned out for town halls and anti-tax "tea parties" across the country to voice their deep fear that the government is reaching too far, spending too much, and could end up hurting the programs they know and like, such as Medicare.

Mr. Barbour said he was happy to see the strong turnout at the protests.

"I think it's healthy for people who have never done anything but vote to go out and ring the bell. Politicians need to hear that every now and then," he said.

The governor maintained that the opposition isn't personal to President Obama, whose election Mr. Barbour said was hailed by liberals and conservatives alike as a milestone in American racial relations.

"It's not people don't like the president, it's not that they don't want him to succeed. Now, there's some people that don't want him to succeed in passing bad policy, and I'm one of them, but his policies are far more unpopular. He is not unpopular," he said.

"This is still a center-right country."

Despite optimism this week from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, who said the recession is "very likely over at this point," Mr. Barbour said the pain is just beginning for the nation's governors - and that it could last for years.

Noting that employment and state revenue "typically continue to decline 18 months after a recession ends," Mr. Barbour said states that have already pared their budgets to the bone have nowhere else to cut with more hard times on the horizon. The big bill that Mr. Obama's health care overhaul may present to the states would only add to the burden, he argued.

"There's nothing about this that is particularly encouraging for state financing, which is why we don't want the federal government to stick us with a huge unfunded mandate for health care reform," he said. "Most states can't pay for it but one way, which is raising taxes. We ain't got any money. We don't get to print it like the federales do."

He dismissed the news that retail sales rose in recent national surveys. "Well, that happens when you sell 700,000 cars," he said with a laugh, referring to the Obama administration's "cash for clunkers" auto subsidy program.

But in the long term, the governor said, the economic recovery may turn out to be more like a saucer - a drop, followed by a long, flat expanse before rising up again.

"How do we get a recovery in consumer spending with declining employment, difficulty in borrowing the money we were borrowing just a year or two ago, and having to pay more for the credit that we can get?" he said.

"We're going to continue to have a harder time. It may be 2015 before revenue's back to where it was in 2008."

Mr. Barbour, chairman of the Republican National Committee in the 1990s when the party took over Congress with its "Contract With America," has been quietly raising his profile. Term-limited as governor, with an exit date of 2011, the 61-year-old was more forthcoming than most when asked whether he plans to run for president in 2012.

"I doubt it," he said. Still, he said he would not decide until after the 2010 midterm elections, and he's already taken trips to New Hampshire and Iowa, prompting political pundits to mention his name whenever talk turns to the next presidential election.

Perhaps one indication that he may run, though, was that he pushed away a large piece of chocolate cake during the interview and sipped only tea - at one point recycling his old tea bag for another cup.

With his folksy country sayings delivered in a rich Southern drawl - he often dissuades those who think he may have just fallen off a turnip truck by saying, "I may have been born at night, but it wasn't last night" - the politician is poised to run on a strong record if he jumps into the race.

He was re-elected as governor in 2007 with 58 percent of the vote - only the second governor since Reconstruction to be elected to a second consecutive term. Mr. Barbour also has firsthand experience on the difficulties states face. He balanced budgets without tax increases after inheriting a budget deficit of $720 million, all the while pushing more money toward education.

But he said the massive $787 billion stimulus program pushed through Congress by Mr. Obama could soon prove disastrous for state budgets. With the billions of stimulus dollars now pouring in set to expire in 2011, states will soon find themselves with huge shortfalls, little fat to trim, and possibly the lingering effects of the recession.

As head of the Republican Governors Association, Mr. Barbour is also his party's point man on some 39 gubernatorial races scheduled this year and next.

Asked whether gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey this year will be bellwethers on the nation's political mood, he said he thinks "they will not be very much affected by the national environment."

The results of those two races, he said, will have a tremendous effect nationwide. He noted that in 1993, a year after Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president, Republicans won the Virginia and New Jersey governor races. The following year, Republicans seized control of both the Senate and the House.

The Virginia and New Jersey races in 1993 "stimulated our candidate recruiting to such a degree that this happened: We elected 73 freshmen Republicans to the House. More than half of them made the decision to run for Congress after the November 1993 election," the governor said.

Asked about the state of the Republican Party, he rejected the notion that the once "big-tent" party of former President Ronald Reagan is now so marginalized that is has become merely a regional party limited to the South and Southwest.

"Half the governors in New England are Republicans," Mr. Barbour said, pointing to GOP chief executives in Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut. "Can we compete in New England or anywhere else in the country? Absolutely."

He also said the 2010 elections are a good chance for Republicans to hold those governorships and pick up others in northeastern and industrial Midwestern states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa.

"I'm really not worried about the 'regional party' thing sticking because I'm seeing these candidates that are coming forward," he said.

Mr. Barbour said it's better for Republicans to go into next year's elections having stopped Democrats' agendas, rather than letting Democrats get their way on health care and climate bills and then explaining to voters the consequences.

"My view is it's better to fight and win, in these particular two bills - that is especially the case because neither one of them goes into effect" for some years, he said.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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