Many of you might be saying that now, but barring something unforeseen it’s highly likely that you’re going to end up voting for him just like he calculated you will when he took a supportive position on the issue in a C-SPAN interview Thursday.
“Well, it stirred up a lot of controversy including in Louisiana. I strongly support the Common Core standards, when you actually look at the standards – which is what Common Core is about – people who really read them, that may not be a whole, whole, whole lot, but when you look at them I think they’re very strong, significant, positive standards. The key is being aggressive at the state level in implementation.
“In two regards. Number one, planning and implementation so nobody’s caught off-guard and surprised and there’s plenty of preparation in the classroom. Giving teachers the help they need, et cetera. Number two, retaining state and local control of curriculum and reading lists.
“We can do that, but states sometimes haven’t put in the necessary effort to do that and be fully on top of that. I would absolutely be on top of that.”
So Vitter gave himself an out. He addressed your concerns about Common Core being a federal takeover of the schools by saying he wouldn’t let the feds control Louisiana’s schools as he implemented Common Core as governor.
Now, you can say you don’t believe him, and you might be absolutely right not to.
But here’s the deal: while Vitter was on board with Common Core along with pretty much everybody else when it was first brought on board – and that includes Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose u-turn away from Common Core of recent vintage has become a circus of lawsuits and policy anarchy with school about to start inside of a month – and he has never changed that position, there’s a definitive reason for his taking so strong a position in a national interview.
And that reason, regardless of policy, is political.
Vitter didn’t have to come out as forcefully as he did yesterday. Politicians hold lots of policy positions they often choose not to emphasize the way Vitter did in that interview.
He did it because he’s running for governor next year, and it’s absolutely in his interest to take that position regardless of how hot or controversial an issue Common Core is. He was in Destin most of last week hob-nobbing with a lot of the state’s power brokers as many of Louisiana’s top interest groups were holding their annual retreats there, and if he didn’t come away with the strong impression that favoring Common Core was the right move his answer on the Common Core question would have been indecipherable.
Please understand before we go any further that I have no dog in this fight. As I’ve explained, I don’t care about Common Core, because I don’t think it will have any notable effect on public education at all. I think Common Core is a rearrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic. And while I think there are well-meaning people on both sides of the issue, they’re missing the larger point that the entire model of public education, built as it was in the 19th Century by the Prussians as they sought to develop soldiers for their military so as to conquer the rest of Germany, is obsolete in a 21st century society and will only become more so, and if you want to fix education you need to blow up that system and replace it with a wide open marketplace where the profit motive, technology and innovation can produce something a lot better.
So if you’re an anti-Common Core person, or if you’re a pro-Common Core person, I don’t much care. And if you want to engage in a policy discussion about Common Core you’re going to get a blank stare and a yawn from me. This post isn’t about all that.
Here is why Vitter took the position he took.
First, Vitter and Jindal have never been political allies. They have jockeyed for position as the big dog on Louisiana’s political porch ever since Jindal was elected governor in 2007, and they don’t play particularly well. And with Jindal’s popularity in Louisiana somewhat on the wane – amplified by his lame-duck status and increasing attention toward his national prospects – and Vitter actively running for Jindal’s job it’s very good politics in general to show voters he’s not going to be another Jindal.
And specifically, Vitter wants the voters to see that with him you wouldn’t have a lawsuit circus over Common Core where the governor was at war with BESE and the education secretary over things which are already law, and so on. Whether you’re pro- or anti-Common Core, you really can’t argue that what’s going on at present is a complete mess, and you really can’t argue that Jindal has had a major hand in making it.
So Vitter just sidled up to Jindal’s Charlie Foxtrot and said, “What the hell are you doing?” Which makes Vitter the adult in the room, and Jindal the Guy He Can Do A Better Job Than.
But more than that, what Vitter has done is to kneecap Jay Dardenne, the opponent in next year’s race he has the most reasonable fear of.
Most of the political wisdom in Louisiana has it that Dardenne is the guy Vitter can’t afford to be up against in a runoff – because Dardenne has a lot of appeal among some of the Democrat constituencies like academics and trial lawyers. Dardenne has also cultivated a decent amount of support from the arts community and the hoity-toity crowd in Baton Rouge and New Orleans due to his work on culture and tourism as Lt. Governor, and there are quite a few business people who regard themselves as centrists Dardenne could certainly align himself as the likely choice of. That makes for an interesting coalition that, in the right circumstances, could put Dardenne ahead of Vitter in a head-to-head race – Dardenne would get Democrats and academic/business community/moneyed centrists, and a few conservatives who don’t like Vitter, and thus knock him off.
But the business community and reform centrist crowd tends to be strongly behind Common Core. And Dardenne has been more or less on the fence about it – in fact, in a letter to the Advocate this week he trashed the hash Jindal has made of the issue while saying he agrees with Jindal that Louisiana needs its own standards different from Common Core. Dardenne’s position isn’t an unreasonable one by any means, but it’s not one which would particularly inspire voters looking for simplicity on the issue. More, it’s not one the business community folks Dardenne needs to beat Vitter out for and raise money from are going to like a whole lot.
Dardenne can’t run to Vitter’s right. Fair or not, he’s perceived as a moderate. Nobody thinks Vitter is a moderate. Moderates who try to run to the right of conservatives are going to struggle.
And Dardenne’s plan has always been to run to Vitter’s left. He can’t do that now, at least not on Common Core. So what Vitter has done is put the squeeze on Dardenne, giving him a lot less space in the center than he wants if he’s going to make the runoff.
Vitter is positioning the race so that it’s going to be a Democrat – either John Bel Edwards, or Mitch Landrieu, or maybe Jim Bernhard – in that runoff with him. Not Dardenne.
And all you anti-Common Core Tea Party folks…we all know you’re not going to vote for a Democrat instead of Vitter. You’re certainly not going to vote for Landrieu; two weeks ago he wrote an op-ed in the Times-Picayune extolling Common Core as crucial. And while Edwards refuses to take a position of any substance on the issue at all, you’re not going to vote for him for all kinds of reasons – to the extent he’s against Common Core it’s because he’s owned by the teachers’ unions.
And that’s what Vitter is counting on. And rightfully so. You’re not going to start voting Democrat because he’s for Common Core, particularly when he just said he wants to make sure your biggest concern about it, that being the federal encroachment on education, doesn’t end up happening. And he’s making sure Vitter-vs.-the-Democrat is your choice in the runoff.
This guy is one of the shrewdest political calculators Louisiana has produced in a very long time. He is extremely good at knowing which issues to emphasize in order to maximize his political profit with the electorate. That skill saved his bacon after the sex scandal he was enmeshed in blew up on him in 2007, and he’s employing it to get the race he wants next year.