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Policies, not history, indicate Edwards' fate

My Baton Rouge Advocate colleague got it right, but for the wrong reason.

At the beginning of the month, Mark Ballard wrote a piece arguing that Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards faces some headwinds in gaining reelection next year. A review of his accomplishments and the numbers certainly bear that out.

Edwards mostly has flopped on his agenda and can tick off only two things of significance achieved in his 30 months: Medicaid expansion and criminal justice reform. At best, the voting public will perceive the former as shooting par. Some have benefitted from that redistribution of wealth, but the extra taxes raised to pay for it and contrasted with the rapidly escalating health insurance costs borne by those paying those additional taxes will resent the burden placed upon them – courtesy of the same law. More likely, in net terms it will cost him votes.

He may fare better with reforms to reduce the number of people imprisoned, so long as a spike upwards in crime doesn’t occur and/or no beneficiaries of the changes commit high-profile offenses. Other than that, his legacy is higher taxes, more spending, and the worst economic performance in the country – which he can’t blame on the swoon in oil prices as it ended just after he took office, but which voters will learn (courtesy of his opponents’ advertising) came as a result of the rest of his tax-and-spend agenda.

Polling data bear out that negativity. A recent internal poll conducted by Republican Sen. John Kennedy – perhaps as a prelude to a formal declaration of opposition to Edwards – shows him with a 14-point lead over the governor (performed by the top-ranked pollster in the business). Given that in the past three months through four legislative session Edwards advertised constantly that he wanted to raise taxes and spend more, then produced no permanent solution to the state’s ongoing fiscal challenges, that’s no surprise.

However, Ballard drew on none of this to come to his conclusion. Instead, he sought historical context to lay out the case that Edwards would run into trouble because past governors like Sam Jones and Robert Kennon had, who had interspersed around their terms Earl Long’s governorship and with his brother Huey had impressed the most definitively liberal populism onto the state. Ballard made the same comparison with former Govs. Dave Treen and Buddy Roemer, bookended by the rival to the Longs for most enthusiastically imprinting the populist stain, former Gov. Edwin Edwards.

Besides the minor point that Jones and Kennon could not succeed themselves (with a one-term limit in place prior to the mid-1960s), this analogy where governors who tried to rein in government found themselves ousted by populists as a guide to what could happen to John Bel Edwards fails completely for a simple and obvious reason: Edwards is the populist who sought not to reform government, but to expand it.

You could make the argument that after four years of another Edwards’ populism, his defeat would match largely the history since the 1930s, as government whipsawed between reformers and populists. Yet even this claim breaks down to a certain degree given the evidence of recent decades, for the former Gov. John McKeithen-Edwin Edwards populist stretch lasted 16 years, and the terms of former Gov. Mike Foster, after Edwin Edwards and followed by another populist former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, only charitably could be called “reformist” (to some extent, the same applies to former Gov. Jimmie Davis).

No, John Bel Edwards will lose because he won’t be able to make 2019 into 2015, when he turned the contest into an election not about policy, but about hookers. 2019 will be about policy, and that’s to his great disadvantage. The submission of populism in 2015 may have been premature, but as Edwards has practiced it during his term only reminds the state’s majority why they first started showing it the door with the election and reelection of former Gov. Bobby Jindal.

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