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LA Democrats indeed dead, but not yet gone

With all due respect to Shreveport native and political analyst Charlie Cook (who once graciously guest lectured in one of my classes), he’s only half-right when he declares that if Republican Sen. David Vitter wins the upcoming gubernatorial runoff “we can declare Louisiana’s Democratic Party dead and gone.”

With that statement, he tries to make the point that for this specific election, Democrats have had everything go their way. Despite general majority public support for his issue preferences, Vitter has run an indifferent campaign that only occasionally exploits that advantage. He carries with him the taint of Washington, an uncomfortable past admission, and a take-no-prisoners style of politics that while adhering to Louisiana’s populist heritage does so at the cost of making it too easy for members of his own party to get hung up on personality rather than issues that then becomes divisive.

These dynamics allowed his runoff opponent Democrat state Rep. John Bel Edwards to take his blank slate and manipulate the less attentive public into thinking he is much more moderate than his lifetime Louisiana Legislature Log voting score of 25, one of the most liberal/populist among all legislators in his period in the Legislature, shows he really is. These also have kept the contest discourse much more on personality than on policy, to the GOP’s disadvantage as over the past decade Republicans have proven if they make elections ideological, they win.

In other words, with so much going for them, Cook argues that if they cannot win this election, they can’t win any meaningful power in the state, and this makes the party “dead and gone.” But regardless of the outcome, he only got the not “gone” part right.

Consider that this all comes against a backdrop where Democrats’ standing in the state continues to deteriorate. After the elections, likely the party will have retreated slightly in legislative seats, falling to at or near inability to prevent veto overrides or constitutional amendments. It remains entirely outgunned on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and adding insult to injury its two members there favor many school choice policies the national party loathes. With the offices not facing elections this fall, conservative majorities control both the Supreme Court and Public Service Commission. It almost certainly, again, will be shut out from the statewide elected executive offices below governor.

If Edwards manages to pull the upset, he will have not put a foot wrong and Republicans will have engaged in their frequent exercise of forming, then executing, a circular firing squad. That circumstance does invoke one regularity in American politics that can work against the GOP: the emotive, intellectually incoherent and unsustainable nature of Democrats’ liberalism allows them in elections to focus on gaining power, as opposed to the Republicans’ insistence on following principles derived from the erudition demanded by conservatism, which can cost them elections.

But outside of that structural advantage, Democrats as they currently constitute themselves have no other against Republicans in Louisiana. And because of this, the party is dead; it cannot win meaningful power except by the grace of its opposition. That could change, if the party would change, meaning its elites would abandon hard core liberalism and move to the center. That’s the chimera Edwards presents and that his campaign had, up through the general election, done well enough to put him in there with a chance. However, there’s no evidence that he would try to govern from the center and thereby provide at least one impetus to change the party’s culture.

Regardless of these elections’ outcomes, Louisiana’s Democrats are dead, but not gone, at least in their current form. They cannot govern without any significant impact except if Republicans make mistakes. They are zombified – a well-deserved fate given how they ran the state into the ground in their decades in power – and resurrected only on occasions fortuitous to them. Whether their influence will disappear if Vitter holds off Edwards is another matter, but they will not revive until they respond to the demands of a changed electorate by changing their culture towards the ideological center.

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