Heading into Monday night, Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy had only two missions to accomplish against Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu in the post-general election debate: not say anything stupid and rebut her accusations of his corruption. After the hour expired, so had her reelection chances.
Until last week, Cassidy only had to perform the former. Every indicator revealed him on a clear path to victory, with Republican candidates garnering 57 percent of the vote in the general election, his enjoying a double-digit lead in polling, and early voting statistics having swung in his favor. Perhaps more precisely, even as they can be imprecise, early voting totals cast foreboding over Landrieu’s campaign, with Republicans increasing their turnout while Democrats’ dropped, especially among blacks, where post-election statistics and exit poll results that Landrieu got 94 percent of the black vote but only 18 percent of the white vote suggest 64 percent of the votes she received were from blacks makes that especially troubling for her.
Then accusations that Cassidy didn’t work enough hours to fulfill a state contract surfaced, regardless of whether there was plausible deniability that it tacitly was coordinated by her campaign. For most of his time in Congress, Cassidy worked a few hours a week overseeing medical students and in consultations, being the only specialist in his discipline in the Louisiana State University hospital system and having that employment authorized by the House.
It wasn’t a very credible charge to begin with, but a rule in politics of the electorally successful kind is that when something of that nature gets thrown at you, there must be a response or people may believe it. Cassidy could point out that shortages in time were because he could not quantify everything he did and that same-day work and votes on Capitol Hill were as a result of him consulting in mornings and voting in afternoons. He also could remind voters that Landrieu had no believable benign explanation for why her campaign charged taxpayers for chartered campaign flights, she had admitted fault, but that she never would have paid back the people except that she had gotten caught.
Being desperate, Landrieu was going to try to validate this as an issue as much as possible, even challenging Cassidy to bring his work records with him to the debate. The Louisiana Republican Party neatly parried that by asking Landrieu to bring her records regarding the charter flights to the debate, of which she promised to review all from her initial term on but did not do so from 1997 through the early part of 2002. The review that was done, once present on the Internet, has disappeared from posting, although Landrieu claimed she brought the 1997-2002 results to the event. Yet better for his fortunes would have been if Cassidy himself had made this request.
Also better for him would have been an unambiguous explanation about the timesheets, that during the event Landrieu repeated about a dozen times were a combination of disappeared, forged, and into the hundreds of thousands of dollars of unperformed work. He could have clarified all the ones from recent months were out there (and he did say he signed them), the others the state had sequestered and not yet located, and that the nature of academic work is difficult to quantify in many instances and those located sheets did not reflect the entirety of his output. Of course, in the debate format that’s difficult to get across, so instead he used a tactic where he said a quarter century of service the charity hospitals was done for the benefit of patients, many poor, while Landrieu’s illegal (which she mendaciously denied) spending of taxpayers funds benefitted, he implied, the rich and powerful such as Landrieu and her cronies.
Whether that was the best tactic for that issue was debatable, but in its context it’s defendable. Few people watched the debate, and some more will consume media accounts about it, and comprehensive explanation often gets lost in the shuffle that in a he-said/she-said situation cannot produce a definitive refutation that will shut up the other side. More to his advantage, it also caused Landrieu to come off as shrill and petulant, which does her absolutely no favors for winning the relatively persuadable voters out there. The few genuinely undecided voters who tuned in might have been wondering how Louisiana could elect three times a woman whose tenor and tone came across as a parody of obsessive psychosis, but that was not her target audience.
For the fact is most voters have their minds made up by now, so her approach was no accident, because in the desperate straits she finds herself needing to escape she had one goal: scare two groups of people, one to vote and one not to. The appeal to her base, mostly blacks and the Angry Left, through divisive rhetoric that all but accused generally Republicans and Cassidy specifically of being Beelzebub, was to get them to show up at the polls (no doubt with a heightened sense of urgency given unfavorable early voting statistics for her). The harping on Cassidy and the timesheets every four minutes or so was to discourage those who had voted for the other competitive Republican in the general election, Rob Maness, whose message that Washington politicians could not be trusted she hoped to transfer onto Cassidy; knowing there was no way they would vote for her in the runoff, her aim was to discourage them from voting at all this Saturday by making him seem like the kind of politician Maness railed against.
Similarly, that wasn’t really Cassidy’s intended audience either, for his objective was to keep riding the wave and dancing with what got him there, focusing on making the contest a battle of ideologies, where if he demonstrates he is a conservative and Landrieu is a liberal he wins regardless of what Landrieu does. He played it very safe, to the point of missing opportunities (such as when Landrieu was on the defensive about the implication she would raise taxes in order to preserve Social Security and tried to deflect that by declaring tax hikes only on the wealthy, he could have pointed out that would do little to make the program solvent).
That safety, which included making no stupid statements, probably led to him losing ground on the timesheet issue, which meant Landrieu achieved one of her objectives – but likely to much too small of a degree. If we must (as some great unwritten rule says we must) decide who “wins” these things, by evaluating whether the candidates achieved their objectives, then Landrieu played her lousy hand as best she could, but Cassidy played his strong hand well enough to take the pot.
Cassidy remains in control of the contest. And there may be some lagniappe to that ….