The Republican National Committee should censure the committeeman from Mississippi, Henry Barbour, and perhaps request (although not demand) his resignation from the RNC. Barbour’s apparent involvement with nakedly race-baiting ads and robocalls during the GOP senatorial primary runoff in his state, and his prevarications afterwards both in public and in e-mails to other committee members, merit an official public shaming.
To be clear about exactly what in Barbour’s conduct does and doesn’t deserve a rebuke, and to take care of some housekeeping with regard to journalistic ethics, please forgive a bit of personal backstory.
Widespread conservative fury erupted after Barbour (who is Haley Barbour’s nephew) helped bring black Democrats to vote for incumbent senator Thad Cochran, contributing to Cochran’s narrow victory over challenger Chris McDaniel. In the immediate aftermath of the primary, I advocated restraint during numerous private conversations. Cochran isn’t a bad guy or a bad senator, I said; there’s nothing inherently wrong with attracting Democratic votes if state primary rules allow it; Ronald Reagan himself repeatedly argued in favor of allowing “crossover” voting in primaries; and while rumors abounded, there was at first no proof of real skullduggery. Specifically referencing Barbour, I said that while I was not a fan of his, he did not deserve blame for creatively and vigorously finding ways to help his candidate win.
That all changed when David Martosko, a superb (American) reporter for the U.K. Daily Mail, posted the actual audio of some horrendously race-baiting ads run against McDaniel. Martosko also tracked payments for the ads back to a PAC run by Barbour. My immediate response — all in private conversations, just spouting off — was that this changed everything. Unless Barbour had a really good explanation that absolved him of culpability for the ads, the RNC should censure him, I believed.
I mention this because I know for a fact that my suggestion led to calls for investigations of Barbour and to other demands for censure. I also know that in elaborating on my reasoning (still in private), I had the effect of giving advice that reached and affected various statements by several actors in the drama. It is an axiom of journalistic ethics that one should try to avoid writing professionally about something one has materially participated in (even if at one remove); or, if circumstances make professional comment appropriate, to disclose the involvement. I therefore avoided public comment (other than personal tweets) . . . until now. Eliana Johnson reported recently on NRO that Barbour directly admitted involvement with those ads — though he had repeatedly denied it earlier. So now we have an element of major mendacity on top of the race-baiting that originally disturbed me.
With this backstory, I hope to emphasize that censure is merited not because Barbour worked against the wishes of many conservatives, not because he tried to attract black Democratic votes in a Republican primary, not just because there was an element of hardball in his tactics, and certainly not because he’s on what many conservatives consider to be the wrong side in intra-RNC disputes. It also has nothing to do with legal questions or allegations of direct vote fraud. Instead, what is specifically at issue and unforgiveable here, and what deserves sanction, is the particular nature of the racial scare tactics Barbour used, combined with the falsehoods he repeatedly told fellow RNC members.
Now, getting to the case itself: It is one thing to suggest that one candidate’s positions tend to be better for more black voters than another candidate’s. It is perfectly fine to target different voter groups with different messages and (within careful reason) even to mention race when doing so. But the ads and robocalls against McDaniel went much further. They explicitly warned that McDaniel was closely tied to people involved with the Ku Klux Klan. They said McDaniel had a “racist agenda.” They specifically branded the entire tea-party movement as having “racist ideas.” And even the slightly-less-explicit robocalls, which Barbour already admitted helping pay for (although he says he never listened to them in advance), tied tea partiers explicitly to disrespectful treatment of the first African-American president.
This is beyond noxious. If any Democrat or leftist had done this to Republicans, Barbour himself would probably be yelling bloody murder. But when a Republican committeeman contributes to the wholesale branding of major conservative activist groups as racist, he not only engages in the vilest slander, he also takes away conservatives’ ability to complain about similar smears from the Left. These tactics are beneath contempt and incredibly deleterious to the Republican party’s electoral and philosophical endeavors.
Nearly as important is the ethical imperative to avoid the boy-crying-wolf syndrome. Real racism is a horrible thing. When the allegation is thrown around indiscriminately, people get so sick of it that their automatic response becomes to discount the existence of it even when it really exists.
As I said following the Daily Mail article, Barbour’s involvement in financing such slander should be enough, on its own, to warrant censure. Note that censure is the appropriate method of internal, verbal discipline: Official censure is usually (although not always) something an organization does to one of its own. It is not an expulsion. Indeed, except in truly unusual circumstances, expulsion should be the province not of an organization such as the RNC but of one of its member’s electors, meaning in this case the Mississippi state Republican committee, should they wish to remove from office somebody who serves at the pleasure and direction of those electors.
When someone exacerbates the original error by repeatedly misleading his colleagues, censure is even more appropriate. Missouri’s Republican chairman, Ed Martin, circulated a letter to all his fellow RNC members in which he asked chairman Reince Priebus to investigate the race-baiting ads and robocalls. In a long series of e-mails back and forth among Martin, Barbour, and numerous other RNC members, Barbour disavowed involvement with the ads and robocalls and also denounced their content. For example:
Let me be clear, I disagree with the messages conveyed in those efforts. I think these types of messages and the robocalls in question were deplorable. For one more time, I had nothing to do with them, and I do not know who or what entity did. End of story.
In another call, he referred to Martosko’s reporting as being “full of crazy claims that anyone who knows me knows are untrue.”
Martin, for his part, repeatedly explained that he did not want an investigation into legal matters involving Mississippi’s election, but only into the race-based smears. Numerous other committee members, however, essentially told Martin to back off. One committee member went so far as to urge that the subject be dropped, saying, “I completely take Henry at his word on this matter.”
Well, now Barbour himself has impugned his word. As Eliana Johnson reported in her recent NRO story:
Henry Barbour says . . . Barbour’s committee was “clearly the material donor” [to the group that aired the racial commercials]. And he is not distancing himself from the inflammatory ads. In fact, he says they were deserved because McDaniel and his tea-party supporters criticized Cochran’s outreach to black voters and “tried to intimidate African Americans from voting.”
“That conduct was reprehensible and was not good for Mississippi or the Republican Party,” Barbour says. “Many Mississippians, who were already disgusted by McDaniel’s race-baiting talk-radio-show comments, heard the code words that insinuated that African Americans were not welcome in the Republican primary.”
So which is it, Mr. Barbour? Do you “disagree with the messages” in the ads and “find them deplorable,” or were they “deserved”? Did you have “nothing to do with them” or was your committee “clearly the material donor”?
Ed Martin has worked hard in all this to uphold the integrity of the RNC. He has been rewarded for his efforts with some fairly fierce backlash from the “sweep it under the rug” brigade that dominates the committee’s membership. Worse, some members have even hinted at recriminatory action against Martin himself, which is truly despicable. The herd mentality within the RNC – the blinkered refusal to challenge one of its own most powerful members — is surely a sign of moral weakness.
Amid this effort to ignore political wrongdoing, one member distinguished herself for her moral clarity. Ada Fisher of North Carolina (a black woman, by the way) volunteered to serve on an investigatory committee because, she wrote, “if we don’t pay attention to how we are perceived, the southern red states could overturn the tables and all become battleground states.”
Meanwhile, if RNC members think this issue will simply evaporate with time, they are sorely mistaken. On July 15, a who’s who of conservative heavy hitters wrote to Priebus expressing “outrage” about Barbour’s actions, suggesting censure, saying the shenanigans in Mississippi “cannot be tolerated,” and suggesting that they (the conservatives) will take some form of retaliatory action if nothing is done about them. Signatories included Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell, and conservative-movement direct-mail pioneer Richard Viguerie.
If the RNC fails to act, it risks so alienating the grassroots that volunteers will withdraw from the process and, worse, that conservatives will boycott the polls entirely this fall. Indeed, that’s exactly what influential blogger John Hawkins suggested last week. Such a cure might be worse than the disease, but the inclination to stay home is widespread, and the RNC should not ignore it.
Then again, maybe Barbour himself can head off further unpleasantness. Maybe, now that he is admitting “material support” for the offensive ads, he could reassess his campaign tactics and admit, in a very public mea culpa, that the ads went too far. He could apologize — not for trying to attract black voters to a GOP primary, which is laudable, but for using lies and racial scare tactics to do so.
Barbour isn’t exactly in position to play peacemaker, but by leading via a clear apology, he could help us achieve a rough truce.
Otherwise, censure should certainly be in order.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.