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Edwards packaging to test Democrat playbook

Louisiana’s 2015 governor’s race may tell us whether the standard playbook of southern Democrats needs permanent revision.

The party’s endorsed candidate for that office, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, finally joined his major Republican opponents in running a television ad – perhaps so late because he trails them on in fundraising. In it, we discover, as testament to being a “born leader,” that he was the all-American boy in high school, a West Point graduate who served his country in elite capacity in the Army, and is “pro-life” and “pro-Second Amendment.” Also, he’s a “fighter for education, health care, and working families.”

How nice, but aren’t we all? Time constraints I imagine precluded the spot from telling us he’s attentive to his aged, widowed mother and he doesn’t kick stray dogs. And this gloss is all the campaign will disseminate, because the only way a candidate like Edwards can be competitive is to create an impression at odds with the essential ideology of a candidate like him: he’s a liberal Democrat that wants in his communications to the mass public to sound like a Republican as a solid majority of Louisianans are right-of-center in political views.

It’s nothing more than the playbook for Democrats. It’s not so much that his ads or other campaign material unusually fail to identify himself as a Democrat – in Louisiana’s nonpartisan blanket primary system, which actually doesn’t have a primary election, candidates typically do not announce their party identification. Only Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne on his web site gives his GOP affiliation perhaps because other candidates will note his past legislative record of voting for tax increases and by listing his identification with the party that generally opposes higher taxation this might help blunt an impression that he supports big government.

Rather, it’s that the outliers among his issue preferences from national Democrats are stressed above anything else, and so nakedly. In fact, of the about dozen television ads the four major candidates have run, only one besides Edwards’, being of Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, mentions abortion or gun rights. His others and all of those of Sen. David Vitter’s go into some broad details about various issues areas, such as government spending, education policy, job creation, and welfare reform, all reliably conservative in content. Dardenne’s (to be aired but available on the web) also seem more image- than issue-oriented, but do stress his character and experience in office.

So if there’s any candidate now on the air whose portrait through his ads seems most vacuous if not misleading, it’s Edwards’ one effort. There’s nothing in it about his policy preferences that, when acted out through his legislative voting behavior, would indicate he has a lifetime 30 rating on the Louisiana Legislature Log voting index, indicating a very liberal/populist record. Instead, it’s an exercise in inoculation: by priming viewers who basically know nothing about him on two issue areas where he is atypically non-liberal, this tries to goad them into considering him not to be leftist in his entire orientation and therefore when introducing other vague talking points hopes they read conservatism into those. To the typical members of the voting public, they’ll be protected from knowing of his ideology much more liberal than his Republican opponents.

And it will stay that way until the runoff, for none of his opposition will try to uncover the real Edwards. Each wants to get into a heads-up contest with him, because they know they’ll defeat him, so they have no incentive to play truth detective for public consumption and prevent his joining them. Meanwhile, Edwards’ only hope is to steal a march on them in this period until Oct. 24 and not just make the runoff but carry a good-sized plurality with him, counting on such a sufficient amount of inoculation that he can lock in enough voters and find some more to eke out a win.

Soldier, statesman, champion of the unborn, “fighter” … if one truly believes the ad, then it puzzles to be unable to find the cape on his back and “S” on his chest. If in a day and age where Louisiana Democrats find themselves losing, and badly, in the marketplace of ideas, if this kind of candidate using this strategy cannot be finessed into winning, as long as they cling bitterly to the ideas Edwards deliberately downplays they may never win a statewide office again.

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