About a year ago I wrote that the re-election of John Bel Edwards would mean four years of stagnation and economic malaise. Little did I know that that logic would be amplified and given cover by one of the smallest organisms known to man, the Wuhan coronavirus.
So here we are a year later and we have hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens on unemployment, we have lost untold numbers of businesses, and we have not yet come to grips with the departure of what was once our mainstay, the energy business. Worse perhaps we are seeing the beginning of an anticipated decline in petrochemical manufacturing, as so many of our plants are aging and are becoming economically obsolete as they are too costly to operate and maintain.
My prognostication a year ago was that much like his first term, under Governor Edwards we would see no progress in our economy or quality of life. And unfortunately, I was right. Under Edwards it is difficult or impossible to identify anything that has improved in education, infrastructure, social ills, a reduction of poverty, a reduction of crime, growing incomes and job opportunities, just about anything that state government is expected to accomplish.
Do not get me wrong, I understand that COVID is a health disaster that came out of the blue, a disaster that has taken an inordinate amount of energy to address. And other than his failure to understand that his heavy-handed edicts are causing more harm than good to so many Louisianans, I think that he has done a good job managing the medical crisis. But surely a sophisticated state like Louisiana deserves a leader who can walk and chew gum at the same time. That is not our situation.
To a successful leader there are no disasters, there are only opportunities. For instance, Katrina was just such. The Katrina aftermath provided great opportunity to remake New Orleans, a city that had and has been on the decline for decades. The best minds in the nation descended on NOLA and made valuable recommendations based on a goal of creating a city in which poverty was the exception, not the rule. But they made these recommendations to a mayor that was not a good leader. In the end he surrendered himself and the City to local political pressure and he allowed the greatest opportunity in many lifetimes to just slip away. Had Nagin been a visionary leader New Orleans would have seen a rebirth that by now would have manifested itself in lower poverty and a decline in societal ills, all brought on by growing prosperity. Instead, today the decline continues as mayor after mayor chooses local politics over the long term good of the people.
At the state level COVID presents to Edwards a solution wrapped up in an enigma. Like New Orleans but on a larger scale, Louisiana has been sliding downward for a long time. But, even as budgets over just the last four years have grown exponentially, there are no substantive improvements in our way of life, or worse in our prospects.
There is a great opportunity presented in a post-COVID era, but it is an opportunity that must be grasped before it too slips away.
And grasping it is the conundrum. The state has for a very long time needed a fundamental change in its philosophy of government. The state, that is the people, must recognize that we are being left behind simply because we have chosen to hang onto the ways of the past. Intuitively a strong leader would understand that repeating old policies is not that way to prosperity and he would grasp that in a post-COVID world those states who adapt to changing times will flourish. Clearly, Edwards must address the short-term crisis of COVID, but he must also fathom that at the peak of his popularity he could expend his political capital on visionary change for the state.
Of course, he must have a vision, and that may be the problem. But let us assume that he just does not want to be a caretaker governor, but instead sincerely wants to leave Louisiana a better place by making a course correction for Louisiana. How would that be accomplished? It would start with the governor using his bully pulpit to engage the people in an open conversation about what they should expect from a stronger Louisiana and how it would be achieved. He would make the people understand that there is a path to prosperity, that it will take sacrifice and hard work, but at the end it will make life better for all. He would make them see that we cannot cling to the past and expect anything to improve.
The details would come, but the single most important thing that Edwards could do is to engage the people in a deep soul search as to where we are and where we want to be. Leaders such as Churchill, Roosevelt, and Kennedy, leaders whose mark on history is irrefutable, have always started by engaging the people with their vision and logic. That is the great opportunity that COVID offers to Edwards, but he must unwind the enigma to achieve it.
We deserve a good leader for the medical crisis and at the same time a visionary leader for the future. But in order to serve those two masters, Edwards must want to.