When voters would rather throw a tantrum than protect their own interests, you know that a statewide election in Louisiana featured too little conservatism and allowed too much populism.
Told they should loathe Sen. David Vitter, enough chronic voters for Republicans tipped the gubernatorial contest to Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, whose God and guns strategy soothed them. Democrats won a statewide race for only the fourth time out of the last 28 contests by inspiring populist instincts.
Louisiana has a background of populism stretching back to the 19th century. Populist candidates tell voters they can be trusted to battle reputed bogeymen who keep the people down. Politicians often win elections by promising to redistribute goodies from the presumed enemies of the people, even though in reality, everybody pays in a scheme that serves to empower government and allied special interests at the public’s expense. Although the state’s population has become better educated and has increased access to political information, this simplistic worldview is still powerful among Louisiana voters.
Edwards exploited this latent emotion by stumping for hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenues and spending while declaring falsely that greedy guys around the tree will pay for you and me. But he couldn’t have won without Republicans’ unintended help, starting with GOP politicians who recently balanced the budget using some of the same populist gimmicks. The helped blur the ideological divisions in the election.
Earlier this year, many Republican legislators and Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal joined with Edwards and his fellow Democrats to foist indiscriminate tax exemption reductions on business, eschewing any real attempt to downsize government or to make such changes on the basis of fiscal effectiveness. Basically, as businesses pass these levies along, attentive citizens realized that they suffered a tax increase sanctioned by the GOP.
In defining these breaks as unfair privileges enjoyed by business that required curtailment in the interest of the people, Republicans fell into the populist trap by accepting its liberal premise. Worse, GOP gubernatorial candidates validated the approach by adopting similar rhetoric, sounding like Edwards on this subject. Hearing few ideological choices and mostly echoes, voters had little incentive to choose half-hearted populist appeals from Republicans over the full-throated version delivered by Edwards.
Compounding the error, Vitter spent much energy criticizing his GOP rivals on other picayunish issues to discredit their claims of conservatism. In turn, collaborating with Edwards, Vitter’s GOP opponents volleyed personal attacks on the senator, pushing the election farther away from those issues where clear differences existed between the Republican candidates and Edwards. As members of the GOP field engaged in a family squabble prior to the runoff, the largely unknown Edwards was free to cast his own image, downplaying his hard-left legislative record while emphasizing personal traits that could make him seem valorous compared with other candidates.
He took advantage of reawakened populism, unchecked by the presence of a principled conservative alternative. A critical mass that typically votes Republican opted to reject the besmirched GOP contenders in favor of Edwards.
The Republicans’ self-immolation, along with the watering down of their conservative message, allowed Democrats to distract the electorate from their liberal agenda. That created an avenue for victory in a state not yet past populism. The election’s results showed Republicans ignore this lesson at their own peril.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political of political science at LSU Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics (http://www.between-lines.com) and, when the Louisiana Legislature is in session, another about legislation (http://www.laleglog.com). Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.