Buddy Roemer’s Lead Balloon Candidacy

Yesterday, former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer announced he’s forming an exploratory committee in preparation for a presidential run next year.

And Roemer, in giving an impassioned, serious speech on why he’s running, served notice that he’s not a serious candidate.

There are a number of reasons why Roemer would need a miracle even to put himself into the realm of credible players in the race for the 2012 GOP nomination. That he added to the list in his announcement in the conference room at First Business Bank in Baton Rouge only solidified the difficulty for a candidate who last won a political race 23 years ago.

First, Roemer has never been elected as a Republican. He served four terms in Congress as a Democrat, then was elected governor of Louisiana as a Democrat in 1987 with only 33 percent of the vote after Edwin Edwards conceded rather than participating in a runoff. Roemer switched to the Republican Party in March of 1991, then placed third in his re-election bid that fall behind Edwards and David Duke. He then attempted a political comeback, running in 1995 for governor as a Republican – and was blown away, finishing in fourth place behind Foster, Cleo Fields and Mary Landrieu. Roemer hasn’t run for anything since. He mulled a run for the Senate in 2004 but opted not to make the race, and David Vitter went on to win that seat easily.

That fact is a fairly big strike against Roemer. In weighing the idea of nominating someone for the highest elected office in the land, the grassroots activists and precinct captains who ultimately decide caucuses and primaries are going to see fundamental importance in the concept that somebody they support is capable of winning. If you’re 0-for-2 as a Republican candidate in your own state, and ran behind Republicans in both of those two races (Duke in 1991 and Foster in 1995), they’re going to dismiss you.

It doesn’t help that Roemer came from a Democrat family (his father was Edwin Edwards’ campaign manager in 1971 and ultimately went to jail as part of the BriLab investigation), ran afoul of the state’s GOP muckety-mucks even when he switched over to the Republican Party and just last year endorsed a Democrat – his brother-in-law David Melville as it turns out – for Congress in a race against incumbent John Fleming. Roemer’s endorsement of Melville was seen as a joke, and Fleming, who is a very popular, very conservative and quite effective congressman with a bright future, won the race easily.

All those things taken together will be seen by the party activists Roemer is going to need in a place like Iowa, a caucus state rather than a primary state, as evidence that Roemer “isn’t one of us.”

Second, Roemer’s record as governor of Louisiana doesn’t inspire particular confidence. Did he do some good things in office? Sure. Was he a great deal better than Edwards, who preceded and followed him almost like a recurring cancer? Without question. But Roemer was never able to beat Edwards’ stooges in the state legislature, and they proved his undoing in an almost identical fashion to the experience of Dave Treen, the first modern Louisiana governor to carry the Republican standard who also was preceded and followed by Edwards. Roemer also developed a reputation as being impossible to work with – though when the people you’ve got to work with are a bunch of Edwards disciples, that’s not all bad.

And while you can make a very good case for a lot of Roemer’s ideas and policies which didn’t actually find their way to successful legislative action, perhaps including his tax-overhaul plan which he couldn’t sell to the voters in a referendum, at the end of the day the voters expect someone running for president with experience as governor to demonstrate a record of success in that job. The fact that after four years in office Roemer was only able to poll 27 percent against a crook and a Klansman is going to be seen as evidence of his failure; generally speaking, if you get re-elected like Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels and Haley Barbour did, it inspires a lot more confidence than when you couldn’t beat David Duke in a primary after folks saw you in office for four years.

Social conservatives, like the folks in Iowa without whose support Roemer’s candidacy has zero chance of gaining steam, aren’t going to like the fact that in 1990 he vetoed a strong anti-abortion bill designed to provoke a court fight challenging Roe v. Wade. Roemer said the bill would get tossed out as unconstitutional, and he was right – after it was passed over his veto, it was. That won’t matter with a good many of the folks Roemer is going to need. They’re also not going to be overly happy with the fact that Roemer was the governor who signed the bill creating legalized gambling in Louisiana.

Third, everybody else in the 2012 presidential sweepstakes on the Republican side has spent years laying the groundwork for a run. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee ran four years ago and built whole networks of volunteers and donors. Sarah Palin ran on John McCain’s ticket as a vice-presidential nominee. Newt Gingrich has cranked out books and movies one after another for years. Pawlenty has a book out, as does Huckabee. Herman Cain has a book on the way, plus a radio show. And on, and on. Not only does Roemer’s candidacy come out of the blue, but he hasn’t even done anything to get his name out there. He’s been running a bank for better than a decade, though he’s been a success at it and it’s certainly a plus for a prospective GOP nominee to demonstrate successful business experience. He’s got no name recognition, he’s got no political friends capable of boosting him into relevance and he’s old. Roemer is 67, he’s had triple bypass heart surgery and he’s coming into the race with no war chest.

Which brings us to today’s announcement, at which he struck an iconoclastic, Jerry Brown-style pose. Roemer announced he’s not going to take PAC money and he’s not going to accept any donations larger than $100.

“Electability should not be discussed in terms of who can raise the most money, but rather who has the best ideas to raise America. We can reform American politics and here is my pledge to help us start: I will accept only contributions up to $100 per individual contributor. No PAC or special interest money will be accepted. Only individual contributions with a name and an address, and all will be reported, although not required under the current law. Today, I declare my independence from moneyed special interests.”

That didn’t work for Brown, who at least had the benefit of 45 million Californians, most of whom were Democrats, who knew exactly who he is, and it’s really not going to work for Roemer. Let’s say this fantasy proves true and he somehow gets the GOP nomination. Obama will have ONE BILLION DOLLARS to spend. You’re going to beat Obama with hundred-dollar checks?

At least David had a slingshot. Roemer’s going into this fight with a bowl of wet noodles.

Then he launched into the tired follow-the-money line every populist candidate in recent American history has trotted out…

“Special interest money has taken control of the key policy issues facing our nation,” said Roemer. “It is time to be brutally honest. If we pass a health care bill that does not address frivolous medical lawsuits, fails to make insurance companies compete or provide real choice to our citizens, has someone bought too much access? If we pass a financial reform bill that does not tackle too big to fail, harmful derivatives that shifts the risks of Wall Street’s gambles to Main Street taxpayers, or fix the problems at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, have we really addressed the causes of our financial system’s collapse? If we brag about cutting spending, while we fear touching entitlements for fear of special interest retribution, can we really put America’s financial house back in order?

“We have traded access in the political system for guaranteed special interest outcomes,” continued Roemer. “This must stop. Name a problem or an opportunity – tax reform, spending discipline, jobs creation, Wall Street bailout, defense appropriations – and then follow the money and reveal its tentacles. Our political system, our decision-makers are indebted to all the wrong things — access money, fund-raiser money, special interest money, bundled money, protection money — all of it corrupt and all of it making real change just a nice tag line in a speech.”

None of which is particularly wrongheaded, mind you; in fact it’s generally correct. But it certainly isn’t original, and it’s also not particularly courageous, either. You can decry special interests all you want, but if you don’t call anybody out by name, you’re just babbling on.

Roemer could have taken a shot at Billy Tauzin for getting in bed with President Obama as Big Pharma’s lobbyist, or he could have denounced Goldman Sachs. Or he could have hammered the unions for their role in the auto bailouts that raped the bondholders of GM and Chrysler. Or he could have questioned George Soros’ role in policy on things like monetary policy or domestic energy.

That would have been newsworthy, and it would have spoken boldly – and truthfully – to the people he needs to make an impression on. But he did none of that, and he came off like an ordinary politician – only in this case he’s an ordinary politician with no money and no means of raising any given the $100 limit he’s imposing on himself. Anybody can rail against “the special interests.” Voters don’t even get riled up about that anymore; they’ve heard it already.

Besides, virtually every American is a member of one special interest or another. The issue really isn’t special-interest money, it’s the size and scope of the government which makes it worthwhile for people to plow money into lobbying Uncle Sam – because when it comes to the government being involved in commerce, you’ve either got a seat at the table or you’re an item on the menu.

Republicans and conservatives understand this, and that’s why the Tea Party movement was formed – to root out and clean up the system by going back to the small-government philosophy the country was founded on in the first place. Roemer’s statement talks right past the most influential group of people in Republican – if not American – politics today. His background and preparation doesn’t serve him as an establishment candidate, and the constituency he’d need to fight the establishment is going to look at that statement and be underwhelmed.

But that said, Roemer is a very sharp guy who has always had good (or at least interesting) ideas on policy. His integrity has never been seriously questioned. He’s a banker who didn’t take a federal bailout, which is a nice feather in his cap. And he’s optimistic.

“I know that people will laugh and scoff, particularly the politicians and the political know-it-alls,” Roemer said. “(They’ll say) ‘Roemer can’t win. He won’t take the big money.’ But that’s why I will win.”

Roemer’s going to need a miracle. If he can’t get that he could at least use better advice, starting on Monday when he’s supposed to take part in a forum in Iowa that a religious conservative group is putting on.

Either way, this is a long shot horse which has stumbled out of the gate.

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