There’s been lots of talk lately, from Gov. John Bel Edwards right on down, over whether Louisiana’s politics are becoming more like Washington’s.
Edwards’ contention, backed by many fellow Democrats and more than a few Republicans, is that state government is drifting away from a historic nonpartisanship and toward a system in which party trumps all. We’re not at all-out stalemate yet, and there are plenty of people on both sides of the aisle working to prevent such an occurrence, on the budget and other matters. But it’s not hard to envision a path from here to there.
By another measure, though, Louisiana seems even closer to crossing the line into Washington-style politics. Not even six months into Edwards’ and the newly elected Legislature’s four-year terms, we’re already starting to see signs of a permanent campaign.
That, of course, is how things have played out in the nation’s Capitol in recent years, at least since U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell vowed in 2010 to make Barack Obama a one-term president.
It’s also how things are playing out right now in Baton Rouge.
Much of that has to do with Edwards’ unexpected and decisive victory, courtesy of an electorate that hadn’t sent a Democrat to statewide office since 2008.
There are Republicans who view his easy win as an aberration, a situation-specific occurrence driven by the personal flaws of GOP runoff candidate David Vitter. According to this theory, electing a Republican in four years would amount to a return of the natural order, so might as well set the stage now.
Whether or not you agree, it’s certainly fair to say that Edwards is no shoo-in in 2019, given both the state’s partisan leanings and the difficult choices he’s been forced to make to clean up the financial mess he inherited.
And if anything, the fight over how to close the $3 billion, two-year budget gap Edwards found once he took office has accelerated the trend. What better way to weaken the governor than to paint him as a knee-jerk tax-and-spender, even if the man who oversaw the crisis’ creation was none other than Republican ex-Gov. Bobby Jindal?
Many Republicans in the Legislature are working with the governor to try to fix the problem and raise money for programs facing big cuts. But some more partisan members, along with outside groups such as the Louisiana Republican Party and Americans for Prosperity, have been loudly amplifying the conservative message against Edwards and, in some cases, threatening to politically punish Republican lawmakers who stray and back new taxes.
Meanwhile, newly elected Attorney General Jeff Landry immediately started positioning himself as something of a GOP counterpoint to the governor, particularly on issues that are important to social conservatives. He denies he’s looking at a challenge to Edwards, for what that’s worth, but he surely isn’t the only Republican who smells opportunity.
Edwards is playing the game, too. He set up an outside political group to help make his case that the state needs more revenue to pay for the things constituents from both parties want, from state hospitals to the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students college scholarships.
Like the conservative groups, the pro-Edwards Rebuild Louisiana is using campaign techniques; one recent phone bank call urged constituents of Democratic House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Neil Abramson, who represents a liberal district but has bucked Edwards on several budget votes, to leave voicemail messages at his office expressing their displeasure.
The irony of all this early jockeying is that some of the very same politicians are putting off the really tough calls until later in the term.
During the first special legislative session, lawmakers plugged budget holes with a number of temporary taxes that will expire in 2018, just a year before the next election.
Politicians from both parties are promising real structural reform by then, and who knows? Maybe they’ll muster the will to deliver.
If not, the political posturing will make what we’re seeing now seem like child’s play.