Lessons From the Republican Leadership Conference

I just spent three days in the closest thing there is to the central nervous system of the modern Republican Party. It's not the GOP cloakroom of the U.S. Senate, not Sean Hannity's morning staff meeting, it's not Bill Kristol's brain. It's the quadrennial meeting of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, this time in New Orleans, the city where the gathering was first held decades ago.

In 1969, a conservative 40-year-old businessman from Greenville, Miss., named Clarke Reed gathered right-leaning Southern Democrats at the (now long gone) Jung Hotel, served them baked Alaska ("The waiters sang us 'When the Saints Come Marching In,' " Reed remembers with a laugh) and declared that the GOP—hated and feared from the days of Lincoln—was the future of the South and that the South was the future of the GOP.

At the time this was considered revolutionary, but in retrospect it seems inevitable. After Democrats under Lyndon Johnson backed the civil-rights movement and the Great Society in the '60s, Republicans such as Reed knew—and sought to steer—what was coming next: an exodus of Southern white voters from the party of their ancestors.

Reed's initial New Orleans meeting foreshadowed what became Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy" of 1970 and 1972. The rest, as they say, is history. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush moved the South into the GOP column in presidential elections, while the Newt Gingrich-led revolution of 1994 delivered many of the last Blue Dog Democrats' congressional seats to Republicans. The South isn't exactly "solid," but for a generation it has been—and largely remains now—the anchor of the national Republican Party.

At a private dinner the other night, Reed was in a feisty, upbeat mood. President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have jolted the party; they are the kind of Democrats (big-city liberals) who can, and will, scare Republicans straight to the voting booth this fall—even if they don't automatically stir racial and gender resentment, too. So it's not surprising that this was the largest SRLC group in history, with more than 3,000 delegates filling a ballroom at a downtown Hilton overlooking the Mississippi River.

And here's what I picked up:

In that other, larger world, people like Barbour seem particularly out of place. Talking to CNN on Sunday, he was asked about the Virginia governor's initial failure to include a reference to slavery in a proclamation honoring Confederate history. "It doesn't amount to diddly," Barbour said dismissively. It's the kind of response that his former boss, Clarke Reed, would avoid—and one that is all too emblematic of the limitations of the organization Reed used to run.

Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.