In the waning months of the 1992 Presidential campaign, James Carville hung up a sign on the walls of Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Little Rock. It read simply, “Change vs. more of the same. The economy, stupid. Don’t forget health care.” Carville’s pithy mantra, as we would say now, became a meme, particularly his second point. During the last 22 years, politicians of all stripes have used variations of “(It’s) the economy, stupid” as centerpieces of their campaigns. And there’s a reason the Ragin’ Cajun’s playful, direct, and simple message continues to resonate and work: “It’s the economy, stupid” cut straight through the noise and right at the essential argument that Clinton was making in his campaign for the presidency.
Over the course of the next couple of weeks, I will be publishing a series of articles about why the Democratic Party has struggled in Louisiana. To that end, I have already begun soliciting opinions and commentary from elected officials, party leaders, activists, scholars, volunteers, and ordinary voters, and so far, I’ve collected some extraordinarily insightful and provocative analysis.
Yesterday, I kicked off the series by publishing a guest column by Karen Carter-Peterson, the Chairwoman of the Louisiana Democratic Party. In fairness to the Chairwoman, when she sent me her response, she had been under the impression that I would be using it as a part of a longer story, which I still intend to do. But because her statement clocked in at more than 350 words, I elected to publish it as a standalone guest column. I thought that would be fair to her and fair to my readers; I did not want to risk the possibility of only using portions of her statement and having anyone suggest that I was taking her words out of context. As the leader of the Louisiana Democratic Party, her response, in its totality, was important to share.
While The Times-Picayune and others characterized (I think, unfairly) her statement as blaming the Democratic Party’s losses squarely on Fox News and the Koch Brothers, I understood her to merely be pointing out that in a nationalized campaign in which 97 cents of every dollar spent went toward Congressman Cassidy, it was difficult, if not impossible, to break through the noise. In the month after the primary election, Senator Landrieu ran a total of 100 ads; Congressman (now Senator-elect) Cassidy ran 6,000. And in light of those indisputable facts, it becomes much more difficult to take seriously someone like James Varney, a far-right opinion writer for The Times-Picayune, who attempted to debunk Carter-Peterson’s statement by completely ignoring the disproportionate amount of dark money spent on behalf of Cassidy’s campaign and suggesting, rather myopically and naively, that local newspaper endorsements were somehow more influential than the onslaught of 24/7 cable news.
Right-wing columnists like Mr. Varney do the public a disservice by misrepresenting the true dynamics of an election and discounting (as “garbage”) the pervasive influence of outside money and the dishonest narrative peddled by outside media.” We all know better than that.
But forgive me for the digression. Let’s go back to Carville and messaging.
Over the last few days, as I’ve been soliciting commentary about how and why the Louisiana Democratic Party continues to struggle in statewide elections, I’ve heard from dozens of people who simply want Democrats to focus more on policies and less on brandishing personalities within their party. That, they say, is the best way to move forward.
“The party should craft an economic message around fairness and broadening job opportunities,” says Daniel T. Smith, a Louisiana native who recently earned a Masters in Public Policy at Princeton and is currently finishing his final year at Georgetown Law. “This message should include advocating for Medicaid expansion and raising the minimum wage, both of which should improve the budget situation.” Mr. Smith lists a series of other issues: Criminal justice reform, particularly drug sentencing, eliminating the use of one-time funds to pay for recurring expenses, the professionalization of government services, and transparency in government contracting.
“I would focus on three areas: broadening economic opportunity, fixing the budget, and honest and competent governance,” Mr. Smith writes, “I also think that running against Jindal will provide little traction, as he is off the ballot and Republicans will all be running against him as well. The party must field candidates for every office, but must also prevent Dems from crowding each other out of runoffs.”
Taylor Huckaby, a recent graduate of LSU’s Manship School of Communications and the former Deputy Communications Director for the Louisiana Republican Party and New Media Director for Bobby Jindal’s 2011 re-election campaign, defected to the Democratic Party in 2012. Today, Mr. Huckaby is an outspoken critic of his former boss and his former colleagues in the Louisiana Republican Party. Like Mr. Smith, he suggests that Democrats begin emphasizing their real and substantive differences with Republicans on policies that directly affect Louisianians. Mr. Huckaby also advises Democrats to couch their arguments in language that is understandable and accessible. “Louisiana Democrats need to seize on the spectacular policy failures of Gov. Jindal’s administration, and couch the debate on education funding in business terms,” Huckaby writes. “Jindal has bankrupted us, partially by investing in the wrong kinds of projects and flying by the seat of his fiscal pants from year-to-year. It doesn’t do us any good to give away free state money to companies headquartered elsewhere, companies which will pour our hard-earned tax dollars into global markets. We want to keep our investments right in front of us. That’s real fiscal responsibility: balancing the books and making sure we’ve socked away enough money to send the kids to school. Liberal doesn’t mean profligate– we want a sustainable business model for Louisiana, and the only thing Bobby Jindal has done is lurch from one budget crisis to the next.” With respect to environmental issues, Huckaby believes there’s an easier way to sell the urgency of action than simply sounding alarms on climate change. “Talk about nature,” he argues. “Talk about stocking the duck ponds. Talk about making sure your kids can go hunting, safely, for generations without the fear of sinking into the Gulf. Funny thing is that the Democrats are the conservatives here, making sure there’s land conserved for the future that isn’t inundated with salt water. We’ve done serious damage to our wetlands, and it’s critical they be saved.”
So, how do we message all of this? Well, we don’t have to look too far. James Carville lives right down the street from many of you, and if any of you know him personally, ask him what he thinks of this slogan: “It’s not Stupid Louisiana. It’s Louisiana, Stupid.”
It is understandably discouraging that so many Louisiana residents decided to vote against their own economic best interests, that so many women voted for a man who opposes the Violence Against Women Act, that so many who need health care the most have had their premiums increase as a result of the failures of our Republican Governor in opening up $17.1 billion in expanded care coverage for our most vulnerable and poorest residents, more than 253,000 people, an expansion that would ultimately reduce costs and improve coverage policies all across the state.
Senator Landrieu caught a lot of heat merely by suggesting that the American South wasn’t always the friendliest place for African-Americans. And although she was undeniably correct, conservatives feigned outrage and pathetically attempted to distort her words to suggest that anyone who supported her opponent was sexist or racist or stupid. “I will never apologize for giving the correct answer,” Senator Landrieu told me at lunch in Alexandria on the day before the primary election. “The South,” she repeated, “hasn’t always been the friendliest place for African-Americans, and it’s often been difficult for women to be respected as leaders.” I mentioned that I’d read an article online suggesting that her statement was “politically shrewd.” “I wasn’t trying to be politically shrewd. I answered Chuck Todd’s question,” she said. “I talked about the moratorium and his energy policies.” But the media wanted to focus on her comments on race, which were pedestrian and tame to anyone who knows Louisiana. She told me a story about recently confronting racism in her own extended family to illustrate that it is, in fact, still an ongoing reality for many in the American South. It shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone, white or black, who was born and raised in Louisiana that racism, despite our strides and successes, may still inform the same voters who supported David Duke for governor only two decades ago.
That’s the simple, honest truth, and even if many of Cassidy’s voters were animated by a disdain against the Affordable Care Act and other substantive policy considerations, his campaign’s relentlessness in conflating the most conservative Democrat in Congress, a white woman from the South, with the nation’s first African-American President bypassed the subtleties in order to strike a single note, over and over again: The absurd idea that Mary Landrieu cared more about Barack Obama than she did about people of Louisiana. Some of you may consider yourselves impervious to that type of unsophisticated cynicism. But nonetheless, it was the central and arguably the only message of Bill Cassidy’s campaign. In a state in which, remarkably, nearly a third of Republican voters blame Barack Obama for the failures of Hurricane Katrina, it is impossible not to question the racial animus. In their first and final debate of the run-off election, Cassidy attempted to take Landrieu to task for suggesting she had said anyone who didn’t support was a racist. Of course, that’s not what she said at all, but again, Cassidy was riding into the Senate on a one-trick pony. Throughout her campaign, people accused her of “playing the race card,” because, apparently, many Republicans in Louisiana continue to operate with the belief that racism ended in November of 2008.
A few months ago, at an event in New Orleans, I had the opportunity to bend the ear of Senator Landrieu’s former campaign manager and a few of her staffers. “Cassidy is going to make this about Obama,” I said. “You need to make this about Bobby Jindal and Louisiana.” Jindal, depending on the poll, is either slightly less or slightly more popular than Barack Obama. Cassidy, already, had telegraphed his intention to run against Obama; why shouldn’t Senator Landrieu frame her election as a check against Jindal and an opportunity to distinguish her Louisiana record against his. That never happened.
But it’s not stupid Louisiana; to paraphrase Carville, it’s Louisiana, stupid. And that needs to be the battlecry.