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Edwards' model unlikely to gain his party's favor

Can Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards teach Democrats how to win in the South? The answer to this title of a recent Politico website story is more pessimistic than it lets on.

Written by my The Advocate colleague Tyler Bridges, who pumped this out as he left for a fall semester gig as a Shorenstein Media Fellow at Harvard University, it explores whether Democrats elsewhere in the region can transport Edwards’ shock win in 2015 to their own turfs. Bridges gives the effort some hope, writing that the “progressive” elements in Edwards’ governorship should convince his fellow partisans beyond the border to overlook his seeming anti-abortion views and support for the Second Amendment that produce a perception of him  by some as a social conservative.

But Bridges oversells this case – one that he admits isn’t that strong to begin with – in two important ways. First, Edwards’ fidelity to the playbook that gives Democrats their only shot to win in the South – at least pose as a social conservative while espousing class warfare – has serious holes in the first instance.

Certainly Edwards’ has unimpeachable Second Amendment credentials. But opponents in 2015 – in part because his major rival had weaknesses on personal conduct issues and the other prominent candidates had no interest in attacking him because they wanted, as it turned out failing to do so, to face him in the runoff – did not exploit his weakness on abortion and traditional values.

As a campaign ad Bridges recounted made clear, in terms of personal views Edwards opposes abortion. However, a number of his past statements and votes as a state legislator showed much more acceptance of abortion in the public sphere, even as he subsequently has supported efforts to limit it. In other words, his anti-abortion personal stance acts merely as a flag of convenience to hide a political pro-choice agenda: like Democrat former Sen. Mary Landrieu, as a personal matter he opposes abortion, but if he could get away with it, he would make government neutral on the matter, i.e. enforce a pro-choice policy (echoing his infamous 2006 declaration to a political website that “abortion is the freedom of choice, between the appropriate parties and their higher power”).

Add to that Edwards’ efforts and statements against protection of religious freedom, including rescinding his predecessor’s executive order on the matter while trying (unconstitutionally) to extend protections to those who identify as homosexual that needlessly restrict business personnel practices regarding them, and this further erodes any claim he can make as a defender of traditional values. Determined conservative challengers in his reelection attempt can publicize these things to shear him of any social conservative’s cloak in the eyes of many.

Secondly, if delivering a “progressive” agenda serves as a prerequisite for the hard left that has taken over the Democratic Party, Edwards has little to show for that. To demonstrate Edwards’ progressive chops, Bridges ticks off a list of items on which Edwards agrees with the far left – except that the governor to date has converted into public policy, which likely will remain the case given the political dynamics involved, exactly one of these, Medicaid expansion (the bipartisan nature of criminal justice reform negates that as a talking point in his favor).

And that issue probably will become a liability in the electorate as whole by the time his term ends. To date, the Edwards Administration has alleged that expansion “saved” the state money, when in fact it raised sick taxes to offset the increased costs, a fact it avoids admitting. However, as the cost blending of the state’s share paying for expansion almost will double by 2020, Edwards will be unable to perpetuate the sham as the doubling of taxes on health insurance premiums that kicked in to pay for expansion will not make up the difference at that point. Electoral opponents who remind voters of this, that many who took advantage of taxpayers footing the bill for expansion had paid for their own previously, and that those paying for others continue to see their health insurance premiums skyrocket because of the system Edwards defends, will gain political advantage.

Plus, legislative Republicans continue to have Edwards over a barrel on budget issues. He insists on growing government but had to resort to increasing sales taxes to achieve that – the tax most decried by the political left as somehow “unfair” to those with lower incomes. More conservative voters don’t like his unwillingness to right-size state government, and liberals don’t like that he does it reportedly on the backs of the poor. That’s not a recipe for electoral success.

In the final analysis, that Edwards wears diaphanous social conservative clothing and can’t really deliver on a leftist agenda will discourage the extremists that run Democratic Party politics from thinking the playbook will work elsewhere. They see his tepid record to date and reelection chances as an example of what happens when the voters encounter a Democrat too diluted, and prefer to fantasize that candidates farther to the left will waken some mythical latent liberalism within a voting majority.

Bridges quotes liberal political operative James Carville with the best summation and answer: “So is Edwards really a model for the Democratic Party moving forward? Or is he a fluke?” The latter conjecture is spot on.

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