Why Is Vitter More Popular Than Jindal In Louisiana?

Yesterday, the Southern Media and Opinion Research spring survey came out, and perhaps one of the most interesting items appearing in the results was that while Gov. Bobby Jindal checked in at a 55 percent approval rating, he was eclipsed by Sen. David Vitter’s 58 percent.

A year ago, the conventional wisdom in Louisiana would have dictated such results to be simply impossible. Vitter, after all, was the fallen man. The Sinning Senator. Nobody in Louisiana really believed he would lose re-election to Charlie Melancon, mind you, but national political publications considered him to be “vulnerable.” Vitter was damaged goods, the narrative went.

Meanwhile, it was Jindal who was regarded to have national political prospects. A possible 2012 contender. Approval ratings in the 70’s. A fast-talking wunderkind with the policy wonk credentials to put Louisiana on the map.

Jindal hasn’t really changed much. His governing style is the same over the last 12 months as it was before. He’s still pushing substantial change with a gradualist, technocratic tone, and he still combines high-profile positions the media regards as partisan with lower-profile positions which placate Democrats and leave Republicans scratching their heads. And he’s still wrestling with a budget situation he insists will not be addressed with tax increases.

Amid all that, Jindal has lost some 15 points. And only 36 percent said they would definitely vote to re-elect him this fall, with 32 percent saying they’d definitely vote against him. The 36-32 split is a little misleading, given that if John Georges is Jindal’s primary challenger nobody really believes Jindal would win by only four points without some major unforeseen event taking place.

It’s a sinking feeling if you’re Jindal. And while his re-election seems a solid prospect he’s dealing with a tough legislative session which might push that popularity lower.

Vitter, on the other hand, has moved up a little. He stood at 55 percent approval this time last year, and has added three points to that number. At 58 percent he’s brushing the ceiling of what a politician can do in a state with as turbulent a last 12 months as Louisiana has had – state treasurer John Kennedy sits at a 63.5 percent approval to lead Louisiana’s roster of public officials, and Kennedy hasn’t had the personal stuff that Vitter had to bring his numbers down.

Has Vitter done anything different in the last 12 months than he was doing before? Not really. He’s the same aggressive, outspoken, ideologically-driven conservative he’s always been.

The difference, I’ll postulate, is that in the last 12 months Louisiana has changed. In the last 12 months this state has made a hard move toward small-government conservatism. Tea Party conservatism, if you like. And though the outward displays of Tea Party activism – as seen in rally attendance for the various Tea Party groups – don’t appear to be as pronounced as they were, the needle has been moved. Voters won’t stand for taxes to fund failing government initiatives as often as before. Voters demand a reduction in the size and scope of government. Voters won’t tolerate self-dealing politicians like they used to.

I’ll also say this change has been a long time in coming. Louisiana has seen itself fall behind other southern states like Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, which have far less in the way of natural resources, culture or geographical advantage (as in, the mouth of the Mississippi and the Port of New Orleans) because of decades of Huey Long-inspired big-government policies.

And when Hurricane Katrina blew through the state in 2005, it exposed several things for all to see – the corruption, incompetence and intellectual bankruptcy of the Louisiana Democrat Party, the lack of accountability and shockingly poor performance of the racially-driven Orleans Parish power structure and the identity politics which put it in place, and the endemic waste, fraud and abuse of FEMA, the federal government’s bureaucracy in charge of the recovery. Louisiana, and the nation, also saw laid bare the social pathology and helplessness which results from the Great Society welfare state during that hurricane’s aftermath.

Then Deepwater Horizon happened, and Louisiana saw the effects of the rent-seeking, politically-connected large corporation which fails to maintain industry standards while it buys politicians and regulatory favor in BP. And the coup de grace, an ideologically-driven, ill-advised and economically destructive drilling moratorium which has all but destroyed the state’s most lucrative industry and single-handedly added two points to the state’s unemployment rate.

That’s an awful lot of lessons in six years. And voters in this state are learning them. A consensus is hardening that government has overstepped its bounds, it’s too big, its unwieldy scope invites waste and corruption and it crushes individual freedom and achievement. Louisianans are more involved politically, want more local control and refuse to give any more funding to government even at the parish or city level, as the school tax vote in Tangipahoa over the weekend is evidence. Tea Party candidate Bob Hensgens won victory in a state legislative special election last weekend as well, touting lower taxes and smaller government.

Vitter, whether you think he’s genuine or not, has embraced this new philosophy with fervor. He’s been relentless in attacking the Obama administration over its economic policy, immigration policy, the moratorium and other issues. Vitter also has embraced traditional Louisiana politics in tone, if not substance. He does a good job of getting his point across with theatrical flair. Voters respond to that – the popularity of freshman congressman Jeff Landry, who is something of a Vitter protege and has cosponsored legislation a few times with the Senator of late, is a good example.

It could be said part of Vitter’s emphasis on Tea Party conservatism may have come from strategic considerations. Given the lingering effects of the DC madam scandal and the concerns his camp had about how it might have affected his re-election bid last year, Vitter took no potential constituency for granted. He saw the growth of the constitutional/small government conservative movement within the state and he conducted a major outreach to them. And he realized a great deal of success from that initiative.

Jindal isn’t estranged from the Tea Party brand. In fact, much of his agenda should find purchase within that movement. His idea to privatize the Office of Group Benefits, for example, is right up their alley – particularly given his justification that the Louisiana state government shouldn’t be running an insurance plan. His refusal to back any tax increases is something Tea Party folks can appreciate. And his plan to merge UNO and SUNO is a bold step toward consolidating and shrinking government along the lines of the majority’s agenda (though admittedly SMOR’s poll shows essentially a 50-50 split on the idea).

But Jindal’s tone and style has not matched the wishes of the state’s voting majority. While he’s got some key agenda items conservatives like, his style isn’t assertive the way Vitter or Landry have been. Much of Vitter’s success has come from finding areas in which the large majority of the voters agree, and then driving home advocacy in those areas. Jindal is too cautious in pursuing those areas.

A perfect example is SB 76, Sen. Danny Martiny’s bill to ban project labor agreements in taxpayer-funded construction projects. Project labor agreements are inherently pro-union devices, and nationally they tend to greatly drive up costs while harming the competitiveness of non-union workers. There is almost no pro-union constituency in Louisiana, given that 97 percent of the state’s private-sector workforce is not unionized and Louisiana is a staunchly right-to-work state and has been since 1976. For a Republican politician, anti-PLA legislation is an absolute no-brainer.

But signing on to anti-PLA legislation is the kind of thing which could arouse the ire of the national AFL-CIO and other well-heeled unions, and in an election year it could serve to generate campaign dollars for one’s Democrat opponent. And perhaps for that reason, Jindal hasn’t included SB 76 in his legislative agenda. Word is he’s happy to sign the bill, but he doesn’t want to carry water for it. He’s playing it safe, though by doing so he’s irritating a key constituency which is predisposed to strong support for him.

By contrast, a traditional, bombastic, theatrical Louisiana politician would look at a demographic breakdown of 97 percent non-union workers in the state’s private sector and decide picking a fight with Richard Trumka in an election year would be the best thing he could do. Such a politician would be daring Trumka to come to Louisiana and infuriate the majority of the state’s voters. But that’s not Jindal’s style.

Jindal’s critics on the right accuse the governor of taking the Tea Party and conservatives in general for granted. Others even accuse him of taking Republicans in general for granted. And while that hasn’t really hurt him to date, it also hasn’t helped. In fact, the failure of the governor to capitalize on the commanding position he holds within statewide politics might come from his missing opportunities to solidify himself as the leader and chief builder of the Louisiana Republican Party.

As an example of caution not serving Jindal’s purposes is his relationship with Joel Chaisson, the Democrat President of the Republican-dominated Louisiana Senate. Certainly, Jindal can’t be blamed for seeking a working relationship with Chaisson while the Senate had a Democrat majority – which was the case as late as last year. Since that time, though, six Senate seats have flipped and the body now has a 23-16 GOP majority – but openly, Jindal’s approach to Chaisson hasn’t changed accordingly. Many observers are wondering why, the minute there were 20 Republican votes in the Senate, Jindal didn’t orchestrate a move to depose Chaisson and create a Senate leadership more on board with his agenda. Not doing so led to a mess in the Senate during the recent redistricting session. Even last year, Jindal’s siding with Chaisson on the 2011 budget – necessary though it might have been thanks to Democrat intrasigence in the Senate – created the current budget crisis.

And in several key bills in this session Chaisson is standing in the way of Jindal’s agenda. The governor’s planned sell-off/privatization of the Office of Group Benefits, which has some detractors among conservatives but is largely opposed by the state’s Democrat power structure, is under full-on assault by Senate Retirement Committee Chairman Butch Gautreaux, a Democrat from Morgan City who has appointed himself the standard bearer for the state’s unions – and ran for Lt. Governor last year to disastrous results. Gautreaux has been conducting a witch hunt against the OGB plan, including two contentious interrogation sessions of Jindal’s chief of administration Paul Rainwater, and it’s possible he’ll kill the OGB bill. Gautreaux’s crusade is surely based in principle, but he’s Chaisson’s chairman. Had Jindal orchestrated a switchover to a GOP leadership in the Senate at the beginning of the last session, there would be a different chair of the Retirement Committee and a different character to those hearings.

The question here isn’t whether the OGB plan is a good one. Jindal has decided it is, and he’s put his name on it. It’s ostensibly a small-government idea. So the question is whether a Republican governor in pursuit of a small-government agenda is willing to make the moves to eviscerate the political punch of his Democrat opponents and get that agenda passed. Folks who support Jindal and also support a small-government agenda actually expect such an agenda to come to pass as a product of his governance; beating the opposition is important in making it happen.

A last example of a missed opportunity to the governor arising from a cautious political nature came a little more than a year ago. After a fundraiser at Brennan’s Restaurant in New Orleans at which Jindal, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and Texas Governor Rick Perry were on hand, Jindal’s aide in charge of fundraising Allie Bautsch and her boyfriend were put in the hospital by five assailants who in all likelihood came from an anarchist-organized protest in front of Brennan’s. The story caught a bit of momentum nationally – our coverage of it here on the Hayride was picked up all over the blogosphere – but Jindal’s administration did everything they could to kill it.

I thought at the time it was a major mistake for the governor to do that. Whether the Iron Rail Book Collective, the anarchist commune in Faubourg Marigny (since shut down by the New Orleans Police Department after a riot during Mardi Gras) which organized the protest could be proven to have engineered the hit on Bautsch or whether any convictions could have been had out of the incident, the attack came during a weekend during which no less than 18 people suffered gunshot wounds in the city. This happened while the Southern Republican Leadership Conference was taking place, a not-insignificant convention bringing lots of well-heeled and influential folks into New Orleans. The attack on Bautsch and the flashing police sirens throughout the city that weekend – including a major incident not three blocks from the Hilton Riverside Hotel where the convention was in which eight people were hit in a drive-by shooting – was a significant black eye for the city.

At the time, Mitch Landrieu – who remains the top Democrat threat in Louisiana to Jindal and other Republicans, if for no other reason than there isn’t anybody else on that party’s bench – was the mayor-elect in New Orleans. Ray Nagin was, at the time, the sitting mayor. And the New Orleans Police Department was at perhaps a low ebb in its history; the NOPD hasn’t been an effective law enforcement operation in well over a decade, and by last year the city still had a fresh memory of the Louisiana State Police and even the National Guard supplementing its cops. In other words, the attack on Bautsch and the outbreak of gunplay throughout the Crescent City pointed out a complete failure of local law enforcement – whether the anarchists were attempting to foment a revolution outside Brennan’s or not.

A practitioner of power politics, which Jindal doesn’t appear to be, would have looked at that scenario as an opportunity. Such a practitioner would have called a press conference with Bautsch and her boyfriend, fresh out of the hospital, in tow along with some of the other victims of the weekend’s violence, and decried the criminal element in New Orleans which has for too long presented our single largest quality-of-life issue in Louisiana, and By God as governor he wouldn’t stand for it one minute longer. Such a practitioner would have demanded a reprioritization of the state’s finances to create a sizable redeployment of the state police into Orleans Parish, announced that the state police would be taking a lead role in assuming control of crime investigation in the city, and vowing to surge the state troopers permanently into the city to get crime under control. Asking for legislation to put the state police in charge of reconstituting the NOPD as a more effective law enforcement operation would have been a good move as well.

All of which would have made for a nightmare not just for Landrieu, who might have found himself made irrelevant with respect to the largest issue confronting his city, but Democrat politicians in Orleans Parish who had been opponents of Jindal since his emergence on the state’s political scene. Anyone opposed to such a move would have looked not just soft on crime but like an active defender of a failed NOPD and the criminal element itself. Meanwhile, voters elsewhere in Louisiana who regard New Orleans as a cesspool of violent crime would likely recognize and appreciate the fact that finally somebody wanted to do something about it – and in particular, voters living in the suburban parishes surrounding Orleans would have rejoiced. Logistically, a surge of state troopers into New Orleans would have required a recruitment effort and a staffing expansion, and taking on such a project would have meant Jindal would own its failures as well as successes. But nobody would judge the effort within a year of its initiation, so Jindal would have gotten only the bouquets from having put it in motion on Election Day 2011. And in the event it would produce a safer New Orleans, and the economic benefits arising from such an improvement, it would be Jindal, not Landrieu, getting the credit.

This wouldn’t have been a small-government issue per se, but conservatives – even the libertarian kind – are fans of the rule of law and demand that violent criminals be taken off the streets. It’s not a violation of limited-government principles to enforce the law. And it would have been a very popular move to attack crime in New Orleans head-on.

This is not to say a Gov. Vitter would have made such a move. It is to say Jindal didn’t.

And that’s perhaps the difference between the two. Ideologically, Vitter and Jindal are similar – not identical, but similar. In terms of emphasis and robust advocacy, they’re not the same. It looks like the majority of the state’s voters, who are increasingly embracing a small-government conservatism and demanding politicians who will make a robust commitment to implementing it, would rather see Vitter’s style than Jindal’s.



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