The next big round of elections is more than a year away, but already, we're starting to see Louisiana's electoral future. It's a dreary sight.
The big-ticket contest is Gov. John Bel Edwards' reelection bid, and since he's a Democrat in a conservative state, Republicans consider him ripe pickings. Several big names could run against him and are starting to make their moves. The depressing part is that, so far, these moves amount to little more than fear-mongering and sloganeering.
Up in Washington, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy used a Judiciary Committee debate over a federal criminal justice reform bill, which had enough support from Republicans as well as Democrats to pass out of committee, as an opportunity to lob a bomb in Edwards' direction. Kennedy called the state's new effort to reduce its nation-leading prison population, legislation which also had bipartisan support, an "unqualified disaster," made some grossly inaccurate claims, and doubled down when Edwards pushed back.
Round One featured Kennedy arguing that Edwards pushed the laws through the Legislature last year without consulting sheriffs and district attorneys. Yet both groups were represented on the panel that drafted the bills, Edwards has close ties to the state's sheriffs, and supporters went through grueling negotiations with the state's district attorney association to arrive at a final package.
Round Two consisted of Kennedy sending committee chairman Chuck Grassley a 14-point list of scandals at the state Corrections Department — many of them focused on the family of longtime Angola Warden Burl Cain — and at the State Police. It's all damning stuff and perfectly fair game, but none of it has to do with the effort to reduce the prison population. Yet Kennedy cynically linked the issues in an apparent attempt to show that Edwards can't be trusted to keep dangerous criminals in prison, which is more likely to frighten voters than even a lengthy list of public corruption scandals.
Kennedy did use his letter to address the small number of inmates who've been released early — four percent or so — who've been rearrested. Again, fair enough, and recidivism is always a concern.
But proponents of prison reform never promised that no bad actors would slip through the cracks. They've taken on the issue anyway. There are powerful human rights arguments for giving people who've committed nonviolent crimes a chance to lead productive lives, for rebuilding communities that have been decimated by mass incarceration, and for cutting the huge cost of locking so many people up. Advocates of justice reform have done so even knowing how easy it is for critics to grandstand. That takes the sort of political courage you rarely see from Kennedy.
Then there's Attorney General Jeff Landry, another potential Edwards opponent, who's been harping on a provocative yet entirely unproven theory that Medicaid expansion, which Edwards enacted under the Affordable Care Act, has exacerbated the opioid crisis by giving clients easy access. This is a popular talking point these days among partisan Obamacare critics, but there's no convincing data to back it up, and it's far more likely that Medicaid expansion is helping people battle addiction by providing treatment.
That didn't stop Landry from citing cherry-picked anecdotal evidence and using typically inflammatory language.
"A Medicaid card to a drug pusher is like a credit card," Landry he told The Advocate. "It costs them nothing, then on the street, it's 100 percent profit."
State officials, meanwhile, point to new policies restricting access and statistics showing the use of opioids is starting to go down. Landry's response was to simply claim that they have no credibility. Not exactly a cogent, evidence-based argument.
Then there's U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, who told the Press Club of Baton Rouge Monday that if he were governor, he wouldn't support any new taxes. This as the Legislature is in special session grappling with the imminent loss of $1 billion in temporary taxes.
Abraham's vow, like Kennedy and Landry's lines, is an easy talking point, particularly from someone looking in from the outside. Some lawmakers are on the same page, but as we speak, the adults in the room from both parties are trying to figure out how to work around them and keep health care and higher education adequately funded.
None of this is to say that there isn't plenty about Edwards' record that an intellectually honest opponent can criticize. But it's hard to credibly argue that he hasn't approached criminal justice, Medicaid expansion and the state's budgetary challenges with a certain level of seriousness.
The question is whether his potential opponents, whoever they might be, will rise to that level.