Haley Barbour, whose nostalgia about the pro-segregation Citizens Councils in the Mississippi of his youth created controversy, has come up with a clever formulation to push back:
Barbour said the controversies over race overlook his support, starting several years ago, for a civil rights museum in Mississippi and the upcoming events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders. But he recognizes that he might carry an extra burden if he runs.
"I have reconciled myself to the fact that some people on the left who don't like me or don't like conservative Christian Republicans from the Deep South are going to criticize anything I do," he said.
This is smart politics. Barbour can't allow himself to be so closely associated with racism that Republicans decide he's an electoral liability, as some already have. But the optimal level of race-related controversy for Barbour is not zero. If he is seen to be under attack from the left on spurious grounds, this makes him a right-wing racial martyr, a powerful source of attraction on the right. And that is indeed the angle Barbour pushes here: They're attacking me because they hate people like you -- white, Christian, Southern. Barbour is not the perpetrator but the victim of bigotry.
And, of course, his claim isn't totally ludicrous. Some critics are going to overreach. Cases of political correctness and oversensitivity can certainly be found. In the conservative psychology, these things tower far above actual racism, which is somewhat pathological, but Barbour's martyrdom does not need to rely upon pure fabrication.