Barbour’s mixed messaging on social-issue 'truce' can’t last long

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has a decision to make, and it’s not just about running for president. 

Barbour must decide whether to embrace Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’s call for Republicans to agree to a truce on social issues. 

Over the past year, Barbour has repeatedly sent mixed signals on whether he believes in a truce. The mixed messages continued at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where he told one pro-life group that social issues matter, but opined to a conservative magazine that “purity is not a winner in politics.”

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The issue promises to bedevil a probable 2012 presidential campaign by Barbour, who has already come under criticism from one potential rival for the GOP nomination for siding with Daniels on the issues. 

Daniels, who is also thought to be considering a run for president, raised the right’s ire by suggesting that social issues mattered less than fiscal ones given the nation’s budget crisis. The next president, Daniels said, “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues” until the country’s economic woes were sorted out.

Conservative pundits and leading 2012 GOP contenders immediately pounced. 

“This is absolutely heartbreaking,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a 2012 favorite on the right, wrote to members of his political action committee, HuckPAC. “Gov. Daniels is a personal friend and a terrific governor, and I’m very disappointed that he would think that pro-life and pro-family activists would just lie down.”

Another potential GOP candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, told a radio show: “I don’t think he [Daniels] understands what conservatism is all about.”

Meanwhile, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, another likely GOP candidate, told Real Clear Politics: “I’m not sure what Mitch had in mind. There’s a whole coalition of people and interests and issues that comprise the conservative movement and the conservative perspective. … I don’t think it’s an either/or.”

Barbour was the only 2012 candidate who seemed to back Daniels. 

At a Christian Science Monitor dinner last September, a reporter asked whether Barbour supported the truce. He replied that he sympathized with the sentiment, and added that a candidate’s position on abortion “ain’t going to change anybody’s vote this year.”

He added that he hoped people campaigning for candidates “would stay focused on the issues that matter to the campaign: jobs, the economy, taxes, spending, debt, deficits.” 

Barbour’s comments went largely unnoticed as Daniels took heat from social conservatives, but last week Santorum lumped the two together in an interview with radio talk-show host Glenn Beck:

“Guys like Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels say we sort of have to … throw off the social issues and leave them behind. And I think that is a very serious mistake.”

Santorum made the charge the day before the opening of CPAC, ensuring they would be noticed. His remarks also put pressure on Barbour to respond at CPAC. 

But Barbour seemed to take both sides of the issue in separate interviews. 

After his address to CPAC, he sat for an interview with the pro-life website Life News, where he seemed to back away from his previous support for the truce. When asked if social issues should play second fiddle to economic ones, he replied: “I don’t believe that at all. Social issues do matter.”

He then said that as president, he would codify the Mexico City Policy — which prevents American tax dollars from funding groups that perform abortions abroad — into law and also warned that a second Obama term could lead to more pro-choice judges on the nation’s high court.

Barbour sounded a different note last week in an interview with the conservative magazine Human Events. “Unity is what we need that’ll help us win, and … purity is not a winner in politics,” Barbour said.

That’s not exactly a new sentiment from the former Republican National Committee chief. Soon after Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat in a special election, Barbour remarked of the pro-choice Brown: “Well, he’s very much a moderate Republican, and I think it’s a reminder to Republicans that we don’t need purity.”

As he prepares for what advisers privately say is a probable presidential bid, Barbour will have to make another decision: Is purity on social issues mandatory, as many of his potential opponents claim, or should a truce extend those political concerns until economic ones are sorted out?

Barbour’s answer will make a difference to socially conservative voters in Iowa, which hosts the first 2012 contest for Republicans. How Barbour plays the card could also determine whether he comes out on top of a crowded GOP field next year.

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill.  Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com.