Inconsistency from politicians is as inevitable as LSU fans’ irritation with Nick Saban. But given the state’s political culture, Louisianians may not mind it when it concerns the incoming governor.
Throughout and after his successful gubernatorial campaign, Democrat state Rep. John Bel Edwards emphasized how Louisiana’s apparently dire fiscal straits required that everybody override political divisions and work together. Only after the campaign did the public learn that “working together” really meant on Edwards’ terms, which involved him doing the opposite of what he argued for as a legislator.
When he headed the badly outnumbered Democrat caucus in the House of Representatives, Edwards pontificated that legislators should challenge gubernatorial control of the Legislature. The Republican-led House and Senate rarely deviated from Republican Bobby Jindal’s agenda.
Yet now that Edwards will sit in the big chair, suddenly he seems more than willing to subvert legislative independence by encouraging selection of a Democrat as House speaker — a post that influences the makeup and leadership of legislative committees. In other words, he wants the chamber led by individuals sympathetic to a Democratic agenda, despite his party holding 19 fewer seats than Republicans.
Of course, governors of both parties have historically exerted influence over the Legislature’s picks for leaders — but never in such a dramatic repudiation of the will of the people as expressed through their election of a solid Republican legislative majority. Only once in House history, during the first part of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s first term, did a speaker whose partisanship matched the governor’s come from the minority party — and then Democrats only had a margin of one more seat without an absolute majority, which dissolved into a GOP absolute majority before the end of the term.
The only precedent on the Senate side occurred during Republican former Gov. Mike Foster’s second term, when Democrats held almost as large an advantage proportionally over Republicans as Republicans enjoy today in the House. But Foster’s ease with big government, increased spending, and higher taxes resonated much more with that Senate majority then than do Edwards’ similar views with the House majority now.
When pressed, Edwards explained this strong-arming as an exercise in “bipartisanship.” To a liberal Democrat like him, “bipartisanship” occurs when the opposition majority party accedes to his wishes. But if that majority dare use its power to stall his minority party agenda, in LibDem-speak it becomes “obstructionist.” As he sees it, control of the House solves this problem in governance.
Even if such minority rule blanches those who value representative democracy, the rhetoric resonates well in a state with an electorate that expects strong executive leadership. The rogues who populate its political past won power by convincing the people, with the help of the people’s and their legislators’ deference, that a governor’s benevolent rule would solve all problems. A figure rides in saying he has the answers, then promises that he will fix things if you trust in him to do it his way. Usually, everybody but a few dissidents swoons to comply, regardless of any inconsistency in the chief executive’s present-versus-past behavior.
This attitude gave us governors like the Longs and the previous Edwards. Recognizing it brought John Bel Edwards electoral success. We’ll see if exploiting it wins him control of the House.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University 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 in it (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.