For as long as anyone can remember, the Democrat Party has had a donkey as its mascot. In fact, it’s been well over 100 years since the jackass has been the visual representation of the longest-running political party in world history, ever since opponents of Andrew Jackson began calling him a jackass and he happily adopted the symbology. Thomas Nast cemented the donkey as the symbol of the Democrats with an editorial cartoon in Harper’s Weekly in 1870.
But individual state Democrat parties have departed from the donkey as their symbol. In Oklahoma, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky Democrats will use a rooster. In New York they’ll use a five-pointed star. And in Missouri they’ve used the Statue of Liberty.
In Louisiana, they ought to use a possum.
Because after all, playing possum is precisely what the Louisiana Democrat Party is up to these days.
Just look at the 2011 election cycle, in which the Democrats effectively sat out the statewide races, took essentially no position on the BESE races (Democrat constituency groups banded together in an effort to protect the establishment against a reform movement which ultimately swept the board, but the party itself was very quiet) and instead fought a holding action in the state legislature by running “me too” campaigns against Republican challengers.
Democrats advanced precisely zero ideas for governance this year. They didn’t even challenge the conservative ideas being put forward by Republicans; to look at the campaign Gary Smith ran for Senate, for example, outside of the mail pieces he was distributing in the black community you’d think he was Tom Coburn or Allen West. Ditto for Gene Reynolds, running for state representative in Webster and DeSoto Parishes, and Jack Montoucet, who successfully beat back a GOP challenger for a House seat in Acadia.
There are lots of other examples.
Playing possum is hardly something new for Democrats in Louisiana, or elsewhere for that matter. One could make the argument that Bill Clinton had a relatively successful six-year run after Dick Morris convinced him to play possum once the GOP took over a majority in the House of Representatives. Clinton railed against the extremist nuts who were running the House at the same time he co-opted virtually all of Newt Gingrich’s legislative agenda. And for better than a decade Democrats running for office in Louisiana have attempted to style themselves as “John Breaux Democrats” – which basically means they’re Democrats who reject all the things people hate about Democrat ideology.
When the “I may be a Democrat but I’m as conservative as the next guy” line stopped working, largely due to the fact that most of its practitioners jumped ship and switched to the GOP over the last four years in Louisiana, they were out of options.
So the answer is to tromp around in the wilderness with the possums. And to lay down when there are two-legged animals nearby.
“I’m not trying to tell you it was a great, banner year for Democrats,” said state Rep. John Bel Edwards, of Amite and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “But at least we stopped the bleeding.”
In answer to Vitter’s and Jindal’s millions, Edwards, [State Rep. Sam] Jones, and Democratic state Reps. Karen St. Germain, of Pierre Part, and Patricia Smith, of Baton Rouge, put together what Jones called the “Lazarus plan.” Basically the idea was to play dead while Jindal and Vitter danced on their graves, he said.
Mail pieces, radio commercials and recorded phone calls tried to link Democratic legislative candidates to President Barack Obama. The Democrats ducked that fight, instead having their candidates focus on roads, bridges and other local issues, Jones said.
“The idea that there are some interlocking relationships between Louisiana state representatives and the White House is preposterous and I think the people saw that,” Jones said.
Jones said their legislative wins – including five freshmen in races targeted by the GOP – marked the emergence of a new Democratic Party in Louisiana. It’ll have younger elected officials, more moderate with a business-oriented platform. “We are the party of safety nets, not entitlements,” Jones said.
That’s spin, said G. Pearson Cross, head of the political science department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
All the election results showed was that some races can be nationalized – think Vitter’s re-election last year against Democratic U.S. Rep. Charles Melancon, of Napoleonville – and some cannot. Bailing out banks too big to fail is not an issue that the people of Bunkie expect their state representative to tackle, he said.
On the other hand, Cross said, “I’m kind of surprised that it wasn’t a bigger sweep for Republicans. But the big story for this election, the one historians will remember, was the inability of the Democrats to field a statewide candidate.”
The fact is that the holding action/Lazarus Plan worked because the Dems managed to throw the kinds of resources at those key legislative races they otherwise would have thrown into a statewide campaign, and thus beat back stiff GOP challengers.
- Smith spent over $400,000 in his Senate win over Republican Garrett Monti.
- Montoucet spent over $100,000 to beat Anthony Emmons for a House seat.
- Sen. Eric Lafleur had spent over $200,000, with another $162,000 in reserve, as of Oct. 30 in his re-election effort against Doc Miller.
- Sen. Ben Nevers was well on his way to topping $200,000 by Oct. 30 in his bid to hold off Beth Mizell, which he managed by 400 votes.
It’s well worth asking what on earth makes it worthwhile for somebody to raise and spend $200,000 for a state senate seat that won’t pay that much over a four-year term, particularly when you’re not going to control anything at the capitol. But getting a spot in the tree is all the Dems want right now.
Because at some point, it’s no longer time to play possum. That time will come in next year’s legislative session, when the GOP majority begins to exercise the power the voters gave it in an election the Dems didn’t bother to seriously contest. At that point the Democrats you’ve heard nothing from over the past year or so will come out of the woodwork in an effort to stop things like getting rid of teacher tenure in the public schools – which voters indicated they’re ready for in the BESE elections – or expanding charters and vouchers, or lowering or eliminating state income taxes, or whatever else.
But when that happens, just remember – this is a party which refused to present an alternative to the voters.
Rather than engage in the fight for the future of this state, they opted to play dead – just like another well-known nuisance animal we have no shortage of here in Louisiana.