Budget spat counterproductive, reflects political ambition
The spat that has erupted between the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration and Treasurer John Kennedy only may be understood in the context of political ambition that ultimately impedes optimal policy-making on the issue of the budget.
So the volley initiated by Kennedy constitutes part of an electoral strategy for the next cycle of state elections (and one could argue the vigorous defense by the Jindal Administration itself reflects a strategy of political ambition). Again, the contest of ideas in a free market of political discussion never is a bad thing. But past a certain point, the background noise of an agenda as a whole of questionable validity tends to distract from achieving the very outcomes that agenda purports to produce in government, even as it may serve somewhat effectively a different electoral agenda.
It began when Kennedy, no stranger to offering advice to other policy-makers even when it has little to do with if anything with his official duties, took matters a step further and criticized Jindal and his crew for their deserved reluctance to flush available but poorly-allocated revenues out of the budget that would lead to cutting higher-priority functions in state health care and higher education. Ever since he lost in his third attempt to move beyond the office he has held now for over a dozen years in 2008, unusually for an executive branch officeholder Kennedy has peppered the universe with ideas about how other parts of Louisiana government should do their jobs, but until now never had moved to outright political attacks on others with the accusation that they were whipping up fear to prevent the budget reductions.
This atypical behavior of a statewide elected official stems from Kennedy’s absolutely naked ambition to achieve higher office, with the governor’s office presumably in his sights in 2015 (as his rhetoric in these commentaries that began only after his last unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate, we can assume he is not interested in a rematch in 2014 with Sen. Mary Landrieu). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; having such a carrot dangled spurs candidates into coming up with good policy suggestions. And, when he first came up with a comprehensive list of policy changes to try to reduce state spending without, he argued, big cuts in health care and higher education, while uneven both in quality and realism, there were some good ideas on it.
But now a year-and-a-half has passed and Kennedy, in his recent critique, continues to peddle essentially the same list – even though plenty of public airing has demonstrated some of it is unworkable and some of it already has been or continues to be implemented, even as a couple of items remain to be tried in a meaningful way. The official Administration response even alludes to Kennedy’s hash and rehash of the questionable or implemented items as acting as if no substantive rebuttal to them exist (a listing of these appears in parts of a note sent to Kennedy – unlike him, the Division of Administration does not post these kinds of communications on its website – reproduced here). Indeed, Kennedy never has tried substantively to defend these ideas but simply has restated them again and again, and, as of the date of this posting, has not responded to the latest rather convincing and withering riposte of his repeated assertions.
That’s not inconsistent with the sometimes careless approach Kennedy takes on state fiscal issues that on occasion has made him appear to live in a glass house, if not shockingly ignorant about state government. The note in response gave examples about how Kennedy’s preaching on spending restraint and contracts reduction was at odds with some of his own actions in running Treasury. And perhaps the most prominent instance of an assertion he would like to have back came when he spoke both in a public forum (as reported in the media) and then on the radio of there being over 30,000 politically-appointed jobs in the state’s government. In fact, he appeared to get the concept of “unclassified” state employees confused with the idea of a “political appointee” – while some in the unclassified service are appointed at-will without demonstration of merit, the positions of most do follow merit procedures. For someone with then about a dozen years in as the elected head of a state department, to make such a simple error really calls into question his credibility on the larger aspects of the fiscal issue.
All of which smacks of the quality that cost him that 2008 election: an appearance that he is a political opportunist instead of a genuine, principled fiscal conservative and perhaps one that stays with a message that has some political popularity regardless of the quality of its content. Yet if that’s his strategy, it’s not one without political merit in Louisiana, for it comports to the state’s populist history and exploits the present division within conservative ranks between the visceral, populist wing of it and the more informed, principled cohort of it
Kennedy clearly seems to be courting the support of the populists who invest more emotionally and more on personalities (valorized or demonized not just for presumed issue preferences, but for personal reasons as well) in their political calculus. This requires construction of a narrative, which shares a tactic with the political left, that cannot be permitted to be altered substantially despite contrary fact and logic. While Louisiana’s political culture as a whole continue to evolve away from the populist persuasion (even as, within the past three decades, a good portion of it has migrated from left to right), it remains a potent vein in which to tap for politicians, and Kennedy’s behavior in regards to the state fiscal issue, if not designed to reach that, otherwise seems ideal to do so.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 10:20