Aspen is most famous for its lush scenery and its lavish wealth. But among the crowd that trades in high-level politics and policy, the Rocky Mountain getaway is also known as a prime summer gathering spot.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who regularly travels in these national circles, got a lot of flack for being there for an Aspen Institute event during the first weekend in August, when the city's pumping system failed during a heavy rain.
But another Louisiana Democrat was there that weekend as well: Gov. John Bel Edwards, who attended a retreat for moderate Democrats hosted by a group called the "Third Way."
It was no real surprise that Landrieu, who is in his last year as mayor, is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and is rumored to be eying a future national role in politics, would find himself there. But Edwards' presence is more unexpected.
Less unexpected is that other Democrats are eager to meet him and hear what he has to say.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards will spend the weekend in Aspen, Colorado at the Democratic …
It's one thing for a Southern Democrat to be elected mayor of a liberal city. It's quite another for one to win decisively in a conservative state. Some Louisiana Republicans see Edwards' 2015 victory as a fluke and blame it on opponent David Vitter's flaws, but outside the state, people look at him as someone who's cracked a daunting code.
According to an account published in The Economist, Edwards was there to explain how he did it, and to argue forcefully against one strain of Democratic thinking, that its leaders should shift to the left.
While Edwards is progressive on economic issues such as Medicaid and the minimum wage, and even on some social issues such as gay rights, he's firmly in the anti-abortion and pro-gun column. This, he has said often, is a key reason he overcame whatever initial skepticism many Louisiana voters might have felt. And this, he argued in Aspen, is what the party needs to tolerate if it wants to elect more people like him in states like his.
Edwards' stances are at least partly a matter of self-preservation, of course. While his poll numbers remain pretty strong, Republican partisans are gearing up for a big challenge in 2019, although it's not yet clear who their standard-bearer will be.
And despite his presence at this and other national events, Edwards studiously avoids any hint that he might have ambitions beyond Louisiana's borders. That's one way he differentiates himself from predecessor Bobby Jindal, whose entire eight-year tenure often felt like a prep session for his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination. It's also one way he sets himself apart from his own national party, which is a tried and true tradition among Democrats hoping to compete in conservative Louisiana.
But the truth is that Edwards doesn't need to drop any hints to pique the interest of Democratic strategists who want to expand the number of places where they can win. His presence in the Governor's Mansion would be enough, even without his sure-handed leadership during a series of well-publicized disasters and episodes of violence.
Nor is this a new phenomenon. I covered the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, soon after Kathleen Blanco took office and before her legacy became inextricably linked to Hurricane Katrina, and couldn’t help but notice that national Democrats were impressed that she'd figured out how to win in the conservative South. The fact that a key part of her strategy was distancing herself from the likes of them seemed lost on this crowd.
And none of it means that Edwards is likely to follow in Landrieu's footsteps and actively pursue a higher national profile anytime soon.
He doesn't need to. Enough of his party's thinkers see him as someone with something to teach them. And judging from his comments at the August gathering, he thinks so, too.