"He's one confused politician." Or John N. Kennedy was so portrayed, in a sharp commercial against him in the 2008 race for U.S. Senate. Kennedy, then a Republican, had run in 2004 as a Democrat, and probably not the most centrist Democrat in that open-seat race.
Then-Sen. Mary Landrieu's campaign slammed him as a flip-flopper in that 2008 ad, and she won re-election, only to lose her seat in 2014 to Bill Cassidy. Then Kennedy finally won another Senate seat on his third try last year.
And now, No. 97 in senatorial seniority, the 60-something freshman is showing surprising independence from President Donald Trump, who campaigned for him.
The latest: his coolness, at best, on Kyle Duncan, a Washington lawyer and Baton Rouge native. Duncan is not really a Trump nominee but a darling of the anti-abortion right and folks like the Family Research Council, headed by Louisianian Tony Perkins.
He's the Perkins nominee, more than the Trump nominee. But for evangelical leaders who have swallowed Trump's crass behavior, it's worth it for lifetime appointments to judgeships for young men (mostly) who can carry the FRC and Federalist Society banners in the courts for decades to come.
Duncan, 45, is nominated for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. It's a huge appointment; the court recently split 7-7 on an abortion rights case. The divided ruling let stand a judgment that the state could not arbitrarily cut off Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood.
So Duncan sounds like an automatic "yes" from the now profoundly conservative Kennedy? Nope.
He's already voted against one Trump nominee for another appeals court, and said he would vote against another nominee for a district court slot elsewhere. Both had extenuating circumstances that justified the votes; those were not flaky decisions, although the party-line nature of the Senate makes his defections striking. Kennedy did not cast the deciding vote on the first judge, as one Democrat also crossed party lines and canceled out the Louisiana defection.
What explains this coldness to Duncan? He's an LSU Law graduate but has lived elsewhere; even Kennedy, for many years a state official, had practiced more in real cases, not just appellate brief-writing. And yes, the Baton Rouge bar hasn't had a 5th Circuit nominee in years, and resents that fact. But that parochial concern should amount to little for the policy bonanza that Duncan represents for the party's ideological base.
While judges in the district courts are typically heavily influenced by senators' wishes, those in the circuit courts are policy jobs where the White House, in Democratic or Republican administrations, typically calls the shots.
What's with Kennedy? It's a question that has confused for many years. That he is so low on the Senate seniority pole, that he asserts himself, to the annoyance of the party's base? Who knows?