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Political veterans talk about solving problems in a divided country

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U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (left) and former Governor Haley Barbour discuss their experiences of working with both sides of the political spectrum to achieve bipartisan legislation. The leaders recently spoke to UM students about leadership in a fragmented political landscape. Photo by Bill Dabney / UM Foundation

OXFORD, Mississippi – Two of Mississippi’s great modern political figures recently used their decades of combined experience to share lessons about solving problems in a divided nation with more than 100 University of Mississippi students.

Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who served from 2004 to 2012 and also chaired the Republican National Committee, and U.S. Senator Roger Wicker, the state’s top senator, spoke to students visiting the auditorium on October 22nd Ole Miss Student Union were gathered. Her talk, “Solving Problems in a Divided Country,” gave students the opportunity to hear from two of Mississippi’s most notable elected officials from the past 50 years.

Barbour, who has a Juris Doctor from Ole Miss, is the namesake of the Haley Barbour Center for the Study of American Politics, which is part of the UM Department of Political Science. The current climate is unusual, he said.

“I’ve been doing this for 53 years and I can tell you that we are at a time that I find very unusual, very strange, unique; Say what you want, ”said Barbour. “Historically, when we’re equal, so equal strength between the two parties, and it happens from time to time, usually, except this time alone, we’re all kind of clumped in the middle.

“At the moment we are on an equal footing, but there is no middle.”

The former governor said the media has become more polarized, with cable news channels leaning either left or right, and voices on the extreme sides of the problem have been heightened by social media in recent years. Misinformation abounds, said Barbour.

“There are millions of Americans posting things that they have no idea whether it is true or not,” he said. “I have friends who were here at Ole Miss 50 years ago and who keep sending me things that are just junk. Just agreed.

“You see a lot of the same things from the liberal media elite. It’s just made up. “

Wicker, whom Barbour named the vacant Senate seat of then-US Senator Trent Lott in 2007, said he was happy to see the growth of cable news in the 1990s when Fox News hit the scene, but agrees that the current media landscape has become politicized.

“I was happy to have my balance (when Fox News came out).” said Wicker. “Now those of us on the right side of the spectrum tend to click on Fox News and we hear it all night, which increases our tendency to go to the right. You have MSNBC, CNN and the mainstream media on the left, and we seem to have lost center on a lot of issues. “

Wicker, who also earned a bachelor’s and law degree from UM, said he believes some topics that aren’t that often on the radar of news broadcasts still have a big global impact. He believes there is much more agreement and collaboration on some of these issues.

“I would differentiate between top tier issues in Congress and these really important second tier issues,” he said.

United States Senator Roger Wicker (left) and former Governor Haley Barbour speak to approximately 100 UM students at the Gertrude C. Ford Ole Miss Student Union. Photo by Bill Dabney / UM Foundation

Wicker referred to Barbour’s work in making changes to the Export-Import Bank and sees it as an example of bipartisan work. Critics of the fund on both the right and left saw it as a pesky chunk of corporate welfare subsidizing corporations while others saw it as good policy for the United States.

Wicker said the problem had been resolved by leaders on both sides.

“People like you and I have said everyone in the world is doing this and EXIM is making money for the US Treasury, which sounds like good business to me,” said Wicker. “This is an issue where partisanship has been replaced by valued, strong views on job creation in the United States.”

The Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which allows the US government to sanction foreign government officials, was signed by President Barack Obama in 2016. Wicker said the bill, which he co-authored with US Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, was another example of important “second tier” issues.

Proponents of the law say it expands the nation’s response to human rights abuses around the world.

Barbour began his political life in 1968 as a field organizer in Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign. From 1973 to 1976 he was executive director of the Mississippi Republican Party. Presidents Gerald Ford, George HW Bush, and Ronald Reagan were among the many Republican candidates who received his advice.

He also served as Political Director of the Reagan White House and was a co-founder of the BGR Group, a well-known government affairs firm in Washington.

From 1993 to 1997, Barbour was chairman of the Republican National Committee and in 1994 led the “Republican Wave,” which led to Republican control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

In addition to discussing the changing media landscape, the former governor told the crowd that demanding “purity” from members of a political party, meaning that they must agree with the party on all issues, also creates division.

Republicans never had a majority in the House during Barbour’s time leading the Reagan White House’s political operations, but Reagan passed his economic plan and social security reform among other initiatives, Barbour noted.

Reagan believed that asking for a purity test for candidates created a less inclusive and less effective party.

“President Reagan would say that in two-party politics, ‘purity’ is the enemy of victory,” said Barbour. “Don’t forget that someone who agrees with you 80% of the time is your friend and ally and not another person 20% of the time.”

James Hirsch, a senior director of public policy and economics from Kansas City, Missouri, said he was impressed with how the two have dealt with current and past problems.

“You spoke about disaster policy-making with confidence and tenderness that I did not expect,” said Hirsch. “Reg. Barbour on the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Senator Wicker on infrastructure improvements in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Both speakers emphasized the bipartisan nature of aid and what Senator Wicker called ‘secondary’ as a place where policymakers for the common good come together.”

Lila Osman, a junior public policy executive with Ocean Springs, said she enjoyed the event and especially enjoyed hearing Barbour’s discussion of Hurricane Katrina.

“When explaining how to deal with the aftermath, Governor Barbour mentioned listening to the insights of others involved in the state, but ultimately all parties respected his decisions and leadership skills, which in turn enabled him to be quick and easy in time to act efficiently. “Urgent need,” said Osman.

“I found your two insights into the state of our nation very informative and effective.”

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