It Doesn’t Take Much To Be A ‘Political Expert’ In Louisiana

At least, that’s the takeaway I got from reading Penny Font’s Baton Rouge Business Report article on the death of the Louisiana Democrat Party over the weekend.

On the whole, it’s a pretty good piece which accurately describes the straits the Democrats are in, and perhaps unwittingly it uncovers the attitude which more or less guarantees Democrats will be irrelevant for the foreseeable future. That wasn’t hard for Font to do – all she needed was to get party spokesman Kevin Franck on the record about the defectors to the GOP of recent months…

Officially, at least, the Louisiana Democratic Party doesn’t seem to miss the defectors. Spokesman Kevin Franck says they can be divided into two categories: Those who were Democrats in name only and rarely voted along party lines, and those who split purely for personal gain.

“We’ve certainly been challenged by the politicians who have decided it is in their best personal interest to leave the Democratic Party,” he says. “But it does have its rewards. The ship has become a little more difficult to steer, but when the rats jump off the ship, the ship is that much easier to manage.”

Font blames the destruction of Louisiana’s Democrats on several factors – the evolution of the South into a Republican region, race and the leftward move of the national Democrat party, and in particular Obamacare and the offshore drilling moratorium. But what she completely misses is the elephant in the room – namely, the horrendous performance of the Louisiana Democrats in office over the years. There is no mention of Hurricane Katrina and how it exposed the state’s Democrat then-governor and Democrat then-New Orleans mayor for their complete incompetence and scandalously poor leadership.

But Font is to be forgiven for that omission – thanks to the experts she consulted in putting the piece together.

Here’s a sampling…

“As of now, no candidate has emerged to challenge Bobby Jindal,” Samuels says. “Not only do the Democrats not have a candidate, they don’t have a message. It’s not really clear how the Democrats would govern the state differently.”

That was Albert Samuels, the poli sci professor at Southern whose political analysis we’ve discussed before here on the Hayride. And yes, Samuels is right that the Democrats don’t have a gubernatorial candidate unless John Georges follows through on his threat to assume that role.

But he’s dead wrong that Democrats don’t have a message. The voters get their message loud and clear; they just don’t like it.

When Kathleen Blanco, the last Democrat governor Louisiana will have for some time, was in office she responded to a rumored budget deficit by seeking massive tax increases – before the deficit in question actually became a surplus in reality. Democrat legislators have been howling for tax increases in virtually every legislative session before the current one came along; even in this session they’re trying to raise cigarette taxes. Democrats have been pining to bring back the Stelly Plan the voters revolted against in an effort to squeeze more money out of the upper middle class, with no success, in order to fund higher education – when there is a relatively broad consensus that the state’s higher ed system is overbuilt and unsustainable. And there’s an unsurprising silence from the Dems on how to reform higher education – outside, of course, of opposing everything Jindal proposes.

Then Font digs up Elliot Stonecipher, the Shreveport-based demographer and political pundit who gets calls all the time for articles like these. And he usually says stuff like this when they do…

Elliott Stonecipher, a Louisiana demographer and political analyst, says the fall election cycle will be critical for Democrats to prove they’re still a political force.

Given Louisiana’s budget crisis and other issues that have arisen in Jindal’s term, support for him isn’t as strong as it used to be. His approval ratings were down 28% from their highest mark in 2008, when almost three-fourths of Louisianans supported him.

Stonecipher says the party essentially has a “free shot” to raise money and, at the very least, force Jindal to spend some of the $10 million he’s raised for his reelection campaign.

Stonecipher likens current political conditions in Louisiana to those that propelled former President Bill Clinton into office over George H.W. Bush, noting that the Democrats even have James Carville, the architect of that winning campaign, back in the state.

“Those circumstances all exist here in Louisiana,” Stonecipher says. “They don’t even have to win. But if they can’t get a strong, smart, articulate candidate in the governor’s race, the attorney general’s race or the secretary of state’s race, then all of us need to take a time out and think about what this means. That’s one more sign that something more fundamental is happening here—that the problem is now turning to critical.”

First of all, Stonecipher misses that the majority of Jindal’s downgrade in approval ratings came because he’s being seen as not conservative enough. The Democrats can’t take advantage of that.

Second, the 1992 analogy fails on lots of levels.

For one, the state’s economy isn’t all that bad (but for the damage the Democrat President’s drilling moratorium has done, Louisiana would have one of the best state economic performances in the country) and what woes we have aren’t being blamed on Jindal, so he’s not Bush The Elder in that regard.

For another, comparing a gubernatorial race with a presidential one in general is a perfect apples-to-oranges analysis.

Third, you have to win a majority in Louisiana or else you’re in a runoff, and the Democrats won the White House in 1992 without a majority thanks to Ross Perot being in the race; the Democrats will have to beat Jindal straight-up to get him out of the governor’s mansion.

Fourth, while the conventional wisdom in 1992 had it that the big names (Mario Cuomo and Bill Bradley) were sitting things out, they did, in fact, have candidates. They have none so far in this race outside of perhaps Georges.

And fifth, James Carville ain’t what he used to be – he proved that calling the shots for Charlie Melancon’s debacle of a Senate campaign last year. His best work of late comes as a thespian.

Then Stonecipher says the Democrats don’t have to win. Nope – actually, they do. Because if they get 49 percent in every one of these statewide races this fall, do you know what that makes them?

Losers. That’s what. The point of running in these races is to win them. That’s why you raise money and that’s why you spend it. You’re trying to win.

Why do you think it seems the only Republicans who run in statewide races in New York (Paladino) and California (Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina) are self-funders? Because the smart money says it’s a waste of time and you can’t win. Right now the perception is that you can’t get elected statewide in Louisiana as a Democrat, and until somebody comes along and proves that perception wrong nobody will put big money behind the idea. OK, Calvin Fayard bankrolling his daughter through the LaDemo Laundry last year is the exception to that rule, and Font did note it as the source of an ethics complaint. But even that is self-funding by another name. And should Georges take over the Democrats’ standard this fall, he’s not exactly helping.

Stonecipher notes that if the Democrats can’t get a decent candidate for any of the down-ballot statewide races then it’s time to think about what that means. Seriously? He doesn’t think about this stuff for a living? A lot of us have already done that brain work, and guess what we’ve come up with – they don’t have the candidates because they don’t have any appeal.

Look, Norby Chabert is as Democrat as Democrat can be. He’s now a Republican because of the moratorium. Chabert isn’t even shy about it. He’s telling everybody that he switched parties so he has a better shot at getting re-elected to the state senate out of his Houma district. The guy is the Cajun Arlen Specter, for sure, and the state GOP should at least attempt to serve him the same fate the Democrats in Pennsylvania served to Snarlin’ Arlen. But the point is, the strong, smart, articulate Democrat politicians are showing their smarts by not running as Democrats. So what Stonecipher is saying is the Democrats need to find somebody who is strong, smart, articulate and so far to the left that they wouldn’t consider switching parties. Which means for their trouble they’re as likely to end up tarred and feathered by statewide voters as gaining election.

But wait. We have more Stonecipher and Samuels highlights for you…

Stonecipher says that white Democrats, who constitute a little more than one-fourth of all registered voters in the state, have emerged as Louisiana’s true swing voters, having proven themselves willing to vote for either party. Black Democrats, he says, almost exclusively vote for Democratic candidates.

Thus, the Democratic Party in Louisiana continuously finds itself in the position of trying to court white Democrats without alienating black party members, a difficult road to travel. When it comes to economic policy in particular, Samuels says, blacks tend to favor a more activist government, while whites tend to be more skeptical about the role of government.

“The challenge for the Democratic Party is trying to figure out how to straddle that,” he says. “The Democratic Party has to figure out how to thread that needle: how to hang on to blacks, who are necessary but not sufficient in numbers to win elections, and still get the white Democratic vote.”

This is absolutely true. But given the way things have played out over the past 20 years, your typical white Louisiana voter has equated Democrat policy with taking money away from white people and redistributing it to black people. Katrina showed precisely how well that works in the real world, and now white folks in the state – even a large percentage and probably a majority of white Democrats – are sick of it. They remember Mary Landrieu’s tight electoral wins in 1996 and 2002 thanks to massive black turnout in Orleans Parish, and they remember Blanco having something similar in 2003 when she beat Jindal in the governor’s race. They know Democrats buy black votes with promises of free stuff. And it’s not appealing anymore, particularly when there’s an entire class of conservative Republican politicians out there who aren’t afraid of opposing that plan in no uncertain terms these days.

So the challenge, as Samuels describes it, is how to keep promising black voters more free stuff while selling white voters on the idea that they’re not going to give free stuff away. That’s basically impossible, and it makes for ridiculous statements like the ones Fayard makes all the time. She hates Republicans, but she’s a conservative because she goes to church.

You’d say that’s hopeless, and you’d probably be right. I don’t think Fayard is stupid; it’s the fact that she isn’t which makes her look that way. Were she less clever she’d just run as a lefty woman and be done with it. She’d lose, but she’d get all the black vote and probably a majority of some kind of the women’s vote. And perhaps that’s what she’ll do now that she’s running for Secretary of State – though my guess is while she’ll make a runoff with either incumbent Tom Schedler, or Secretary of Natural Resources Scott Angelle, should he decide to jump in, she’ll lose in that runoff. But attempting to play Samuels’ “straddle” game will only make her look like an idiot and folks like me will get lots of web traffic pointing out how dumb her statements are.

Font quotes former Blanco flack Bob Mann, who’s now a journalism professor at LSU, as saying Melancon couldn’t manage the straddle because he irritated too many black voters. OK, I guess, if Mann says so. Melancon only got some 88 percent of the black vote or so in a race where he got pounded by 21 points and picked up less than 40 percent of the vote overall. The black vote wasn’t why Charlie wasn’t competitive; it was because white voters thought he was too cozy with President Obama. But that’s just me and the numbers talkin’. What do we know?

Should the Democrats uncover a black candidate who’s reasonably conservative, though, things might be a little bit different. Of course, that presupposes the existence of such a candidate. There are some who have attempted to style themselves thus, and in the case of Cedric Glover in Shreveport and Kip Holden in Baton Rouge they’ve managed to get elected as mayors of two of the state’s major cities. But on a statewide level an examination of their records would explode those myths; Holden’s history of government boondoggle ideas would play quite poorly with the voters in Ascension and Livingston Parishes who live where they do precisely so they don’t have to pay taxes to support that stuff, and they’d negate whatever support he’d have from East Baton Rouge. Glover has a similar problem with Bossier Parish voters.

In other words, the actual possibilities don’t match up with the prototype they’d need. Which brings us back to Stonecipher’s grand slam analysis of the year…

Stonecipher thinks what the Louisiana Democratic Party needs most is to rebrand itself with a newcomer to politics.

A moderate-to-conservative, highly successful professional female in her late 40s—such as a doctor or a CEO—with a pristine background, who has made her money and is ready for public service, could “absolutely sideline every dirty trick that Timmy Teepell knows,” Stonecipher says of Jindal’s chief of staff.

“Give her Jindal’s money, and it would take five minutes for everybody on the fourth floor [the governor’s office in the Louisiana State Capitol] to have that sinking feeling.”

Hey, y’know what would really work? If she had a bionic arm. People love bionic arms. And a talking cat, too. Teepell would give up for sure.

Louisiana has moderate-to-conservative, highly successful professional female doctors and CEO’s. We have some. Most of them are Republicans. None of them have $10 million lying around to match Jindal’s money – and by the way, if Stonecipher is actually worth interviewing for articles like these doesn’t he understand that you don’t just snap your fingers and raise $10 million in three months for a statewide race?

And even if all those fanciful conditions Stonecipher posits were to come true, since when does a veteran political analyst like him take for granted that a rookie candidate won’t self-destruct with gaffes and stupid decisions? That is precisely what most rookie candidates do. It’s what Fayard has done, in case he’s not paying attention.

I’m not going to brand Stonecipher as a lefty. I’ve heard from some corners he is, but he’s also a Buddy Roemer guy from what I gather. I know C.B. Forgotston likes him a lot. What I do know is these are dumb statements. The Democrats aren’t coming back as a force in Louisiana politics based on 40-something women CEO’s and James Carville. And if they’re listening to this kind of advice, they’re not coming back at all.



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