Louisiana’s Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards made a bad flub, lied through his teeth, but “won” the first widely televised debate of gubernatorial candidates against Republicans Rep. Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone.
Each invited candidate had different objectives. Edwards had to obfuscate and distract from his record, which not only indicts his term with the country’s worst state economy but also is part of an agenda that generally falls out of the Louisiana electorate’s mainstream. Abraham had to prevent Edwards from doing that while presenting a conservative counterpoint to that agenda. Rispone had to do the same yet, trailing both in the polls, distinguish himself from Abraham in a positive way to mitigate fallout that he criticizes over irrelevancies without any ideas of his own.
Edwards won because he accomplished his objective, at least partially, while the others failed. Assisting him, whether consciously, was the Nexstar news media representatives that served as moderators.
If Nexstar hadn’t planned to push the debate in the direction of Edwards, it worked out that way through some curious choices in questions. Each candidate received an individualized query, of sorts. Those to the Republicans were inane, with the one to Rispone a harmless probe into whether he could call himself an “outsider” having been active in politics before ever running for office.
The one to Abraham dredged up the missed votes meme flogged incessantly by the Edwards camp, recently joined by Rispone. Abraham’s number of missed votes in Congress – almost all of which are procedural, and of the remainder few have ever occurred over substantive legislation – has increased precipitously since the beginning of the year, leading his opponents to say he would slack off on the job as governor.
Nobody with any intelligence seriously can buy this assertion. Obviously, Abraham has missed votes – even as he pointed out he and his staff continue to do the job while on his hustings (memo to those propagating this nonstarter: there are such things as cell phones and the Internet) – because he is campaigning physically in Louisiana. If anybody thinks if elected Abraham will then spend entire days during the legislative session going fishing or volunteering to fly critically ill people across the country to receive treatment or whatever he does with his time, they have no grasp of reality.
But introducing this nonissue did give Edwards a chance to inflict a wound upon himself. Abraham responded in part by saying Edwards had missed votes when he ran for governor. In fact, in 2015 Edwards missed around 5 percent of legislative votes, including a couple of important ones late in that session, but Edwards then lied by saying he never had. (He actually said he “hadn’t missed a day,” but the critique was of missing votes, and Edwards and Rispone have in their atatcks on that issue equated “votes” with “job,” so in that context Edwards clearly was being deceptive.)
(He also flubbed the very first question, about regulation of vaping, in mistakenly declaring that the minimum age to smoke in the state was 21, when it’s 18 – something he should have known easily given a bill brought forward in the last session.)
As for his question, one might think serious journalists would put forth the most consequential falsehood of Edwards’ governorship – his telling the world four years ago he wouldn’t advocate raising taxes as governor, then almost immediately arguing for that when he assumed office and now proudly advertising that he did to bring a fictitious and temporary “stability” to state finances. They could have asked, “Before being elected governor, you led your chamber’s party and were privy to state finances in great detail. You said four years ago you wouldn’t raise taxes to deal with budgetary issues, but after you took power you kept asking to raise taxes. Why did you break your promise?” (Obviously, because he never meant it all along; he knew the state’s position very well but didn’t want to reveal during the campaign his agenda of growing government.)
Instead, he got a #MeToo question about a former aide fired for harassment who previously had faced similar charges but which weren’t pursued. Even though insiders knew the hiring was a political payoff, to the wider public Edwards easily deflected this by saying the guy never had been sanctioned for the first alleged incident, so why not hire him, and then when it all came out he fired him quickly.
The Nexstar crew also engaged in a curious form of push polling, rattling off public opinion on issues such as abortion and firearms restrictions where the candidates all agreed, as if telling them what the public thought should cause any of them to have an epiphany and change their minds. This also aided Edwards in that it wasted time in going over uninteresting ground, instead of creating opportunities to explore differences.
However, even if the legacy media figures, whether consciously, gave assists to Edwards, the bulk of responsibility to shed light on what Edwards desperately wants hidden falls on his opponents. And they largely failed to take advantage of their openings.
Using an Abraham example, concerning the question of most concern to Edwards – Louisiana across the aggregate of statistics having the worst economic performance of all the states since he assumed office, and demonstrably worse than under his predecessor – Edwards attempted to parry by claiming Louisiana had its largest economy ever and was tenth-fastest growing over the past year.
Of course, the rest of the story is that, because of federal government tax policy under Republican Pres. Donald Trump the total opposite of Edwards’, every state’s economy is its largest ever because a rapidly rising national economy lifts all boats, even the leakiest of all Louisiana (the economy of which actually isn’t the largest it ever has been when adjusted for inflation). And in any event when your economy and jobs shrink in the first two years you’re in office, you’re likely to get a dead-cat bounce in the third year, but you can’t ignore those first two years as Edwards tries.
But Abraham didn’t bring up any of this. Instead, he mumbled something about it being a bad economy under Edwards and didn’t the uncover the paucity of Edwards’ claim.
Using a Rispone example, Edwards again crowed about Medicaid expansion (which Abraham did point out was a lowest common denominator form of insurance and care), making the usual inflated claims about how it brought care to so many (although it reality many already had it because a third to a half already had been insured and the remainder could go to any charity hospital in the state for free care) and how it allegedly saved over $100 million in its first couple of years of operation (it didn’t, because that includes a $200 million-plus tax increase on the sick, health insurance policyholders, and state taxpayers). He also said he had initiated a pilot program to introduce alleged work requirements to receive expanded Medicaid – but, in reality, as meaningless as those he ordered for able-bodied adults without dependents for food stamps.
But Rispone pointed out none of this or that, starting next year, even with the tax increases expansion will escalate as a net drain on the budget in the range of $100 million annually and with more to come. Instead, he said it would bust budgets for years to come and left it at that.
In a campaign, candidates can’t afford to let the one-sided, distorted, and self-serving claims of others go without adequate challenge. Broad platitudes against won’t cut it when others use selective data out of context, especially when concise data exist that in a few words completely discredits the other argument. Yet Abraham and Rispone missed several such chances to expose Edwards for what he has been and has done.
Thus, Edwards performed the best of the bunch, because he came closest to achieving his objectives. Few people watch these and their impact doesn’t spread much beyond that small circle – direct candidate communications move the needle far more – but last night’s debate must give the Edwards camp hope that it might be able to pull this off, again.