Advice from a Democratic Unicorn


Much
has been made
in the political world of the governor’s heterodox views on guns and abortion. (He supports gun rights and opposes abortion rights.) These positions make him a non-starter in any Democratic presidential primary.

But there is more to life than White House viability. And I think there was more to Edwards’ appeal than his defying the national party line on culture-war issues.

“The majority of people in our state appreciated a civil political discourse,” the governor told me earlier this week, sitting in a governor’s mansion bedecked with both holiday decorations and moving boxes. “They appreciate that I was really working hard with Republicans to make progress on key issues and that I compromised and that they compromised. We didn’t just dig our heels in.”

In his low-key manner Edwards offered this as parting wisdom: “To the extent that might motivate some people nationally to change the way they speak about their adversaries, we’re not enemies.”

But hold on, this is no mere high-fiber paean to civility. There’s politics here. (And not just the possibility that Edwards may try to run again for governor, more on that below.)

When disasters repeatedly ravaged Louisiana, as is happening more often with climate change imperiling the state’s coast line, the governor demonstrated competence and worked with Presidents Obama, Trump and Biden to mitigate the damage.

“It was a no brainer for me to be the best possible partner I could be to Barack Obama, to work well with Donald Trump and do the same thing with Joe Biden,” said Edwards. “Because you never want to have a bad relationship because any time you need something from Washington the answer can always be no.”

And for all the talk about his small-town roots in Amite, Louisiana, Edwards found political success in the same fashion as most modern Democrats: By building a coalition of racial minorities and moderate whites in cities and suburbs. In a state infamous for its corruption, a West Pointer with a duty-honor-country bearing was as appealing to Black voters in Shreveport as he was to whites in Uptown New Orleans, even if his manner was more vanilla than Tabasco.

Which is to say that at a moment voters keep enabling hair-on-fire provocation, Edwards’ success demonstrated there’s a parallel incentive structure that rewards competence, biography and normalcy.

Call it the vibes political economy. With local media decimated and politics increasingly nationalized and tribal, the electorate is mostly gleaning information about public affairs from a motley mix of social media, push alerts and whatever corner-of-the-eye television and print coverage they take in each day.

With partisan voters, and especially in primaries, this redounds to the benefit of figures such as Trump and his imitators in Congress, who know the way to command attention in this new world is with undistilled bombast.

However, with the broader electorate, the considerable political center, I think playing against that type can carry its own benefits. Exhausted and confused voters will default to boring if it seems normal. The 2020 presidential results are the best evidence.

Yet equally compelling is the success of the governors who’ve managed to prevail in forbidding states. Perceptions can be paramount.

Consider Edwards but also Kentucky’s Gov. Andy Beshear, who won a larger-than-expected reelection last month because of his own competence on disaster relief and the just-Andy familiarity he built up with voters during the pandemic.

Or look further north, to Republican governors who’ve managed to win in blue states. Vermont’s Phil Scott, Maryland’s Larry Hogan and Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker were elected and reelected because, with aptitude and that same guy-next-door familiarity, they established their own identities separate from their national party. Similarly, the only governor to defeat an incumbent last year, Nevada’s Joe Lombardo, won in part because his biography as a former Las Vegas police officer let him craft his own image apart from his party in a year when the GOP Senate nominee in the state fell short.

Yet all of these governors had fairly lonely victories and were, or are, confronted with legislatures dominated by the opposition party.

Edwards, for his part, leaves at a moment Louisiana Democrats are at a modern nadir. After holding back the tide of realignment, this state now looks much like its neighbors, with Republicans commanding supermajorities and Democrats increasingly confined to Black or urban white precincts.

Edwards is mildly defensive when I raise the topic about his role as party leader — “it’s not like I’ve been totally absent and uninvolved” — but makes no apologies.

“I decided to pursue bipartisan successes, put the focus on governor as opposed to the word Democrat, and I believe that had I not done that my exit interview would’ve been four years ago,” he told me.

Yes, it is considerably easier for governors, who are inherently dealing with matters less national and polarizing than members of Congress, to overcome metastasizing red-and-blue politics, in which states vote their presidential preference in statewide elections.

But Edwards thinks that for Democrats to better compete on more hostile terrain between the coasts they must step closer toward the political center — and not just on messaging.

“We typically say we think we just need to communicate better — that’s sort of a foolish answer,” he said. “Because that means you don’t really have to evolve on your positions.”

One issue Edwards believes his party must better accommodate the electorate is toughening border security.

“Joe Biden ought to be cutting the best deal he can cut on immigration right now,” said the governor. “Get the money for Ukraine and Israel and he will stop bleeding on that issue.”

Edwards’ advice: “Go to the center, get a good compromise — and do that more often.”

The governor said he has a strong relationship with the president, his fellow Roman Catholic. And when I half-jokingly floated the idea that Edwards could become U.S. Ambassador at the Vatican in a Biden second term — an appointment oft mentioned in the Baton Rouge rumor mill since Biden’s election — he took it quite seriously.

“On that particular job, I can tell you that’s one that would be extremely difficult for me to turn down,” Edwards said, citing the faith he shares with his wife, Donna.

He insisted, however, that he has little interest in Washington and certainly not the Senate (Chuck Schumer, if you’re listening …)

More remarkable to me was that Edwards said that, in the two months since Louisiana’s Mike Johnson became House speaker, he’s not heard once from the lawmaker about ways they could work for Louisiana.

Were past Louisiana titans such as Billy Tauzin or John Breaux or Bob Livingston to have had such clout they would have sent everything back from Washington to Louisiana that wasn’t nailed down in the Capitol.

“I would feel better about Mike Johnson being speaker of the House if I felt he was someone who really believed in making government work,” said Edwards, adding: “But if you don’t believe in earmarks, if you don’t believe in making government work, if you’re not willing to use the weight of your office to benefit your state then there’s very little upside.”

Still, ever wanting to project bipartisanship, Edwards did allow that he was a lame duck and, well, Johnson has been a little busy since taking his new job.

In any event, the governor is more focused on the man who’s taking his job: Gov.-elect Jeff Landry, a Republican.

A former congressman turned state attorney general, Landry represents a familiar archetype here (Cajun Country wheeler-dealer) updated for the times (MAGA!).

Edwards was skeptical that Landry would dare repeal the Medicaid expansion and warned his successor against backing away from the state’s efforts to lure clean-energy companies. Louisiana’s economic gains have come in part from “investments in low carbon and no carbon energy,” Edwards said, and Landry will want those jobs.

“I just believe he is going to be good in this space, although I wish he would talk about it differently,” said the governor, a polite way of stating he wished Landry would stop calling climate change “a hoax.”

That Edwards is being succeeded by a Trump-allied Republican — and one who prevailed without a runoff in Louisiana’s all-party primary — illustrates what a bare political cupboard the governor is leaving behind for his party.

In fairness, the only way to have blocked Landry may have been with a center-right Republican who could have eked into the runoff and then cobbled together bipartisan support. The moment that Republican Rep. Garret Graves declined to run for governor likely extinguished those hopes.

Edwards acknowledged speaking to Graves about running, something that has been rumored in Louisiana and Washington for months.

“I did not necessarily encourage him to do it,” the governor told me before conceding a bit.

“I told him it was a wonderful job, that we need good public servants at the highest level and I did tell him that it’s something that he should really consider,” Edwards said.

Graves now may wish he had run because nobody’s political fortunes this side of Kevin McCarthy have changed so dramatically of late. After McCarthy convinced Graves to stay by making him the de facto deputy speaker — layering the actual second-in-command, Louisianan Steve Scalise — Graves helped negotiate the debt ceiling deal with the White House this spring.

He also pushed an ally at home, Stephen Waguespack, into the governor’s race in a failed attempt to block Landry. Well, now McCarthy has been ousted and is resigning from Congress at the end of the month, Landry is about to be sworn in as governor and, wouldn’t you know it, the federal courts are requiring Louisiana to redraw their congressional boundaries to add a second Black-majority district.

Landry has already called for a special session next month to craft the new district and, well, House Republicans should count on being minus-one in Louisiana after the next election because the new governor will be happy to use a court order to exact political revenge by drawing Graves out of his seat.

The most likely Democrat to claim the seat is state senator Cleo Fields, a Baton Rouge Democrat who served two terms in Congress in the 1990s. In Louisiana lore, Fields is known for being caught on an FBI tape taking a stack of $25,000 in cash from former Governor Edwin Edwards, who instructed Fields to be sure “everyone is careful how that’s handed out.” (Fields, unlike Edwin Edwards, was never charged with a crime.)

Oh, and did I mention that New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell is apparently under federal scrutiny, with FBI agents
interviewing her donors
and the mayor notably
declining to say
at a recent press conference if she had received a target letter from prosecutors?

If it all sounds like a return to form — proof that Louisiana’s enduring pastimes remain football, eating and politicians getting their beaks wet — well wait until you hear that Landry just appointed the 26-year-old executive director of the South Dakota GOP to head Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. (Landry and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem share a political counselor: former Trump lieutenant Corey Lewandowski.)

“Anybody who thinks we’re going to be some boring-ass place where everything functions is going to have to move somewhere else,” threatened, or maybe promised, Mary-Patricia Wray, a lobbyist who is serving on Landry’s transition team. Wray praised Landry as “transactional.”

This all relates to the legacy of Edwards, and viability of Democrats in red states, because the only job the governor may covet more than the Holy See is the one he’s about to give up.

Before I sat down with him, Edwards conducted his last news conference with the state press corps. Surrounded by his cabinet and joined by his wife, the governor stood before a ceiling-scraping Christmas tree and used the session to mostly take a final political victory lap.

Except at the end of his remarks.

“I’ve loved the job I’ve been doing,” Edwards said, before noting that the state constitution bars him from serving more than two terms “at least not without a break.”

Then he said “I don’t say never” and “I’m not going anywhere” and “I love our state too much, love our people too much, to see them suffer needlessly and so while I have no expectation, no intention, of running again, I can see that, should my wife bless it and the circumstances warrant it, that I would do that.”

Okay, governor, we got the hint.

There is a precedent. The other Gov. Edwards — he of FBI tapes, prison time and wizard-under-the-
sheets quips
— reclaimed the office after he served back to back terms. Actually, he won two more, non-consecutive terms, the second time most famously when Louisiana chose the crook over the Klansman, David Duke, in 1991.

It’s easy to see this Gov. Edwards attempting a comeback with a call for, yes, competence and normalcy.

Louisiana, he told me, is “right of center but not right of right.”

Then he gestured out of his office, back toward the residential section of the mansion where the gubernatorial portraits hang on the wall.

“You can look in that stairwell over there: Since 1972 every Democratic governor has been replaced by a Republican who has been replaced by a Democrat who has been replaced by a Republican,” he said. “That’s the trend line we’ve been on for a long time.”


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