A famous and very mistaken assessment of a politician was made by columnist Walter Lippmann, who wrote before the 1932 election that Franklin D. Roosevelt was a pleasant man without apparent qualifications who very much wanted to be president.
Ralph Abraham is a conservative Republican and probably doesn't want to be compared to the lion of the New Deal, but Lippmann's phrase does seem to apply for now.
The North Louisiana congressman wants to run for governor, but he's not ready for prime time.
A self-described simple country doctor, Abraham appeared before the Press Club of Baton Rouge after having announced that he was contemplating a challenge to Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, in the 2019 election. That ensured that he would get questions about state issues and could not skate by with essentially the same speech about congressional action that he might give to the Monroe Rotary.
Yet once the questions came about the state budget "cliff," he appeared at a loss for explaining a coherent rationale for why he should run for governor. There are no elevators in rural Alto, but a politician seeking to go up from there politically has to have an elevator speech.
Abraham, 63, ran and won in his district after the former Republican member, the so-called "kissing Congressman" Vance McAllister, was caught in an indiscretion. The district reverted to type with an easygoing and well-off physician who is a veteran and also a pilot, a man who is proud of living where he grew up in the country near Monroe.
The unexpected election of Donald Trump to the presidency, and Abraham's popularity with his white Trumpian constituents, may have made him confident about running on his résumé and boilerplate GOP rhetoric against taxes.
At the Press Club, he stumbled by saying that Louisiana is a highly taxed state, which is simply not true. In fact, he clearly knew better, having pointed out earlier in his talk about congressional action that Louisiana was less impacted by the reduced deduction for state and local taxes, part of Trump's new tax bill. He was familiar with Capitol Hill issues, where he is working now, but not so much about the state's situation.
Abraham could not name a single state program that he would eliminate to close the budget deficit in the State Capitol, nor did he seem at all comfortable with those questions. But he could fall back on his medical practice, saying that he could save money if rules were relaxed to allow cheaper ways to get care for patients in the Medicaid program.
That's going to solve the state's problems? A billion-dollar shortfall in Washington might seem inconsequential, but when it's about 10 percent of the state general fund, it is a crisis. Challenged, Abraham fell back on GOP orthodoxy about cuts, "If that is what it takes to balance the budget, you bet."
Not likely. If he were to redeem that kind of promise, he would not only have to make cuts that even a Republican Legislature would balk at, but would have to resort to the gimmicks and shortcuts that made former Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration a byword for fiscal irresponsibility. Abraham, perhaps strategically, seemed to be at best vaguely aware of what Jindal did in office.
Abraham was indignant that Edwards, in the former's view, said he would not raise taxes in the 2015 election, and then did so in office. Fair enough, as Edwards' knowledge of the state's balance sheets from his time in the Legislature made any statement about taxes contingent on events. But Abraham appeared, for now, out of touch with the state's fiscal realities.
All this might not mean that Abraham cannot learn and campaign effectively for governor by the fall of next year. He showed some independence from the party line, differing gently with Trump over trade policy, where the administration's view is threatening to his agricultural district. And he showed more personal sensitivity to the Medicaid working poor that he treats as a physician; in the anti-government rhetoric of the State Capitol, they are often portrayed as leeches.
Walter Lippmann was of course very wrong about FDR. Nor, for that matter, did the pundits believe that Trump's simplistic answers to complex questions would be a viable platform for president. But stumbling into Press Club was not an auspicious start for Abraham.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.