Who would have thought the first guy out of the gate for the 2015 governor’s race would have been Democrat state Rep. John Bel Edwards? There’s a reason for that – and while it’s not what he says it is, it has everything to do with the perceived dynamics of a putative contest.
There is some merit to an early start. After the 2011 embarrassment where state Democrats could not get a quality candidate to run – the Democrat who ate the least amount of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s runaway reelection dust was nearly 50 percent of the vote behind – Edwards or any Democrat knows an early start, short of having the ability to self-finance, will be essential to have any hope of capturing the open seat in a state where attitudes have swung decisively against the left on a statewide level. Edwards is personally part of the one percent but not wealthy enough to abjure having to call in chits and sticking out his hand for more.
But, compared to when a typical, serious gubernatorial campaign starts, 18 months earlier? Edwards says he let the cat out of the bag because he wanted to give an honest answer when asked during a radio interview about his future intentions in that regard – which nobody of voting age or older should for a moment believe. It would have been perfectly believable had Edwards said he was giving it “serious thought” or that he “had received a lot of encouragement to run” but left it at that. Why let it out so far in advance, and seeming off-handedly (not in a news release or a well-publicized news conference or rally, but to a tiny, local audience composed almost entirely of political junkies and the bored)?
Because Edwards did as all ambitious politicians do when announcing their availability for higher office – to the greatest strategic effect. Consider that Edwards is probably the most vocal and visible liberal Democrat in the state Legislature. That might get you elected in a backwater district located in one of the most populist tracts of the state remaining, and to a position where you can emphasize local connections and your ability to bring home the bacon, but that won’t cut it in the biggest statewide contest of all in Louisiana post-Republican majority realignment …
… unless you are such a true believer of the leftist creed that you eagerly swallow the pablum from the White House and party elites, regurgitated by a compliant media, that tries to convince the political universe that there is an inevitable national realignment towards Democrats of the liberal ilk – even thought this is a likely temporary phenomenon driven by the ephemeral ascendancy of low information, low interest voters at the national level. And the reason you think you can catch the wave in a state that so recently and so rapidly rejected that is because of its peculiar political history.
There’s credibility to the latter thought that Edwards ought to know better than most. Coming from a political family in the populist tradition, he would know that only now is Louisiana getting its first taste of genuine conservative economic policy, which defies the prevailing state political culture that defines government that governs the least governs the best – except when it’s transferring wealth and services to me that I don’t have to pay for. Less visibly during his first three years, but much more aggressively and openly in the past two, Gov. Bobby Jindal has challenged that attitude without trying to secure its entire abandonment.
What may have given Edwards a thrill up his leg was Jindal’s attempt to transform the culture has now resulted in middling approval ratings in decline, as reported recently. That he may interpret this as agenda rejection and heralds a return to his populist bailiwick that aligns upon liberalism’s lodestar of tax-and-spend (which, in comments after his surprise admission he acknowledged with his assessment of Jindal’s no-new-taxes-not-revenue-neutral stance “that cutting [government spending] is not the answer in and of itself”), this may mean he thinks he’s got a public now receptive to that more traditional persuasion in Louisiana’s political culture.
And by coming out now, Edwards steals a march on the assumed, if not in reality actual, “moderate” Democrats (who don’t take his approach of full-throated defense of liberalism, because they are not as cagey in how they present it, so they try to obfuscate it) that would be presumed to have a better chance at winning support of Democrats and fellow-traveling partisans in this contest against Republicans. By moving early, he can hope to move the playing field further to the left by setting himself up as the “authentic” voice of dissent to the Jindal (and a substantial number of legislators who agree with Jindal but are glad the governor is taking all of the heat) transformation machine and making himself the visible figure around which to rally electoral support based upon opposition to the transformation, cutting out others on the left.
But he is entirely mistaken if he believes the tectonic shift being experienced in Louisiana has run its course or been reversed as a result of negative publicity and transitory polling result. It is error to conflate views of the messenger Jindal, doing the dirty work of restructuring state government away from its populist foundation and irritating pseudo-conservatives who have supported him in the past, with Democrats’ dogging of him every step of the way amplified by the media, and of the message itself that increasingly has found favor among the state’s electorate. As nationalizing social forces continuously buffet the state’s culture, and with the emergence of vanguard politicians who are succeeding in illustrating the internal contradictions to liberalism generally, this has spilled over specifically to dilute the populist appeal. Ongoing policy evolution will buttress that trend.
Consider: by 2015, the charity hospital system will be vastly diminished; the correctional system will be smaller and more efficient; three-quarters of the Medicaid population will have been served by the premium support program Bayou Health for three years or more; at least one university system will be leaner and more efficient; the scholarship voucher program for elementary and secondary education will be larger and more mature; substandard teachers already for the first time ever in significant numbers will be losing their jobs due to the new evaluation system in place and accountability scores for schools will have continued their rise, and, the signature achievement, income taxes at the very least will be gone for corporations and much lower for individuals, if the latter hasn’t disappeared as well. Contrary to the left’s dream, Louisiana will not have fallen apart from all of this, and while some on the right will snipe at Jindal’s managing of this transformation from the sidelines, they will embrace it. Most significantly, so will the public.
In other words, Edwards will have to run against those unsullied by having to be the implementers of the transformation but who believe in it if he stays in the race. Edwards may have thought he can strike when the iron is hot, but does not realize it’s not hot at all. Or perhaps he does have his doubts, but that with such an early start thinks things could break better his way; after all, you can’t win if you don’t play, and there’s plenty of time to get out if you find yourself mistaken.
So, the time seemed right and this was his best opportunity, so he went for it. Welcome to the party, pal. We always can use more sideshow entertainment.