If nothing else, John Bel Edwards is a man of the system.
How could he not be? He's the son and grandson of sheriffs, a West Pointer with eight formative years in the U.S. Army, born into a Democratic political network that ranged from the disreputable Edwin W. Edwards to the sainted Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, the last an Establishment mentor when John Bel Edwards himself ran for governor.
This is a man who was raised to think of the system as service and good intentions, along with regular paychecks.
The governor is married to a schoolteacher, which also inclines him to think in terms of the system: institutions and classrooms, programs and centers, initiatives and collaboratives, funding and services.
It’s how he sees his job. But it is also something of a political vulnerability.
That emphasis on programs was the subtext of Edwards’ address to the opening of the 2019 Legislature, a Clintonian-length exercise of 10 printed pages, not in large print, about the State of the State.
That assessment of Louisiana is very positive, one is not surprised to find, as the governor in charge of the programs and centers and agencies seeks re-election in October’s primary. The looming campaign made much of the governor’s recitation of accomplishments inevitable, though overly laden with statistics and citations of programmatic successes from Shreveport to New Orleans and back.
What it all emphasized is Edwards’ identification with government. The programs are there to serve people, and for all his conservative bona fides on social issues, Edwards believes deeply in that aspect of the system.
Today’s system is in pretty good shape. After all, there is no major economic crisis, although the oil patch is still in recovery mode from the collapse in oil prices almost five years ago.
While it was not Edwards’ first revenue choice, via sales tax increases the budget is balanced, rebounding from the collapse of the state general fund during the eight years of former Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Programs are funded, waiting lists reduced, federal funding secured for this or that.
Edwards would say that this is a testament to his stewardship. Unquestionably it is a challenge for the governor’s opponents in good times to make a case that business is not improving and, as Edwards put it simply, balancing the budget and showing a surplus is a lot better than deficits.
Nevertheless, the public can be fickle, and for every voter who appreciates having his child get disability services, or is no longer worried about her rural hospital closing — even the thousands of teachers likely to get a small pay raise this year — there may be many others who want to hear about what the next governor ought to change.
Jindal was very much in the mold of a change agent, a McKinsey & Co. analyst. For all his lifelong gathering of awards and titles, he was not of The System in the way that Edwards is.
The former governor is in eclipse, so as a political matter it’s wise enough for Edwards to stress his commitment to the system, restoring the programs hobbled by budget cuts under Jindal, and so on.
And as with any incumbent, today’s governor is responsible for the actions of government. When things go wrong in a program he will be the target of criticism, as with revelations of some unqualified recipients of Medicaid expansion.
But if Edwards is to be challenged at the ballot box, is it going to be on the basis of this program not working right or that agency having been the subject of scandal?
As legislators have learned about Edwards from his two terms in the House, and now having seen him as governor — all too often, given the number of special sessions inflicted over the last few years — he’s a hard worker and has his finger on many details and reads many bills himself, perhaps to a fault.
As a man of the system, he may be challenged about operations of government, but his opponents — businessman Eddie Rispone or U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto — will find it is unlikely that he can be bested in an argument over programs and agencies with which he is so obviously familiar.
Rather, one of his challengers has to light on, for lack of a better word, a meta-narrative, a theme or set of them that suggest ways in which The System needs to change. Party label in a Republican state is, probably, just not enough.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.