As always, participants had differing objectives. For incumbent Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards, he needed to keep on dancing fast, trying his best to explain away, if not put nausea-inducing spin on, Louisiana’s worst, if not the worst, economic performance in the nation during his term, induced by tax increases well beyond necessary for the additional spending (that increased almost twice the rate of inflation in terms of state dollars used) he supported. He also needed to dodge whatever of a host of things not related to economics that his opponents Republicans Rep. Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone could work them into the mix.
As for the GOP challengers, they had a two-front battle on their hands. Each had to figure out a way to push past the other into an almost-certain runoff and do it in a way that would damage Edwards. Whichever can do both of these in the forum and then amplify that over the next five-plus weeks can become Louisiana’s 57th governor.
And they met with some success, although it was Rispone that landed the largest harpoons into Edwards. The incumbent has spent the entire campaign, if not his entire political career, trying to appear to be one thing to voters through cherry-picking certain of his actions or policy outcomes while he has been another, like an ambulance-chaser who stretches the truth on a handful of issues to win his client the largest possible award while trying to keep covered up evidence that gives the whole context.
Thus, when the state’s economy that became worse under Edwards came up, he retreated into his usual rap about how the economy grew quickly last year – even though it performed so poorly over the previous two that over his term (through the first three months of 2019) it was the fifth-slowest growing among the states – and how the state has its highest GDP ever – even though every state except Wyoming could claim that. But in his time to respond, Rispone ticked off economic indicators showing the state’s poor performance under Edwards.
This came in the context of a question about political ads where Edwards disclaimed responsibility for negative campaigning – because he had his allies at Gumbo PAC do it for him, and with his tacit blessing. This shiftiness emerged from the start of the event, when he had to field a question about hiring into his office to please prominent supporters an aide previously accused – and, contrary to Edwards’ public statements about it, not exonerated of these – charges of sexual harassment. The aide, Johnny Anderson, proceeded to do it again, with Edwards finally cutting him loose.
In this debate format, Edwards could dance around the subject. Which he couldn’t concerning a series of events and ads about the incident, the most brutal of which went to air last week supplemented by the group behind it filing suit against him for information related to that. The victim who garnered a settlement of over $100,000 from taxpayers appears in the ad and held a new conference the day before the debate. Far more voters viewed these disseminations than watched the debate.
The shiftiness of Edwards also came into play on other issues. His challengers hammered him on his opposition to bills encouraging tort reform, which Edwards alleged wouldn’t have worked and that he really didn’t oppose – because he had hatchet men in the Senate do his dirty work for him. He tried to dodge saying he had supported a gas tax hike that the challengers didn’t, but when confronted admitted it.
But Edwards couldn’t dodge the biggest blow of the night, which came over education policy. He disingenuously tried to take credit for improvement in the state’s woeful delivery, despite having opposed accountability and choice measures as a legislator that helped spur the upwards trajectory (and even claimed he had voted against the landmark bill expanding choice only because it was unconstitutional). However, Rispone then ticked off a handful of choice and accountability items that Edwards had voted against.
The policy minutiae viewers won’t remember. They will remember that Edwards got caught trying to make various assertions and was countered decisively, serving to portray him as just another slippery politician trying to take credit he didn’t merit and to avoid blame that he deserved.
Abraham proved more effective than in the past in this regard as well. Echoed by Rispone, he brought up a preview of coming attractions, that Louisiana Medicaid will soon kick off Medicaid expansion rolls another 130,000 or more ineligible recipients. Although they (and the television journalists involved, who didn’t seem particularly knowledgeable and incurious about Edwards’ inconsistencies) didn’t follow up with relating that so many got on the rolls in the first place (which Edwards refused to call “fraudulent”) because of Edwards policies that deliberately put taxpayer dollars at risk, it added yet another small chink.
Another came when Abraham highlighted Edwards’ killing a tax cut which would have reduced the surplus. Again, he and Rispone could have countered the fumbling explanation Edwards gave that it was too early to roll back the sales tax increases he had supported by pointing out the record-high nature of the surpluses and it was dishonest to collect it for purposes other than what he had argued for, but they did make their point that they would return the people’s money to them while Edwards wouldn’t.
All in all, Edwards spent much of the night on the defensive and couldn’t explain his way out of everything, in contrast to the previous two debates. His GOP challengers competently drew meaningful policy contrasts on these issues.
Not that they always succeeded. For example, they waded needlessly into a spat about Common Core, feuding over how and when they opposed it, when there’s no groundswell in the state to reverse the curriculum guidelines. And they missed chances to bring up Edwards’ favoritism in letting of contracts and whether he supported reparations to blacks given his ancestors deep involvement in slavery. Yet more often than not, they were on target.
Of the two, Rispone proved sharper. While Abraham tended through the series of debates to talk in generalities, Rispone has come to focus better using specific facts. That’s a more effective approach in the debate format to counter a dissembling incumbent.
Whether it will in him a place in the runoff race remains to be seen, but it was good enough for him to win this debate.