Uniquely imprinted in South with the stamp of populism, or the belief that government primarily is to be used as a tool for redistributing resources to favored interests from those that aren’t, Louisiana has struggled intellectually to detach itself from this past. Even as liberalism finds itself far more compatible ideologically to this, many who claim to be conservatives in the state have their belief systems diluted with the notion that place more emphasis on the need for government to use its powers to provide some kind of subsidy or assistance to certain groups against presumed hostile forces as a result of this legacy.
But as educational attainment levels (with qualitative improvements within those levels) have increased, political information has become more plentiful and less costly to access, and economic growth has brought in conservative out-of-state immigrants whose formative political cultures lacked it, populism has less and less effectively has served as a mask for the violations liberalism brings upon the tenets held by conservatives. Even two decades ago, many economic liberals infested state and local offices, buttressing their positions by enunciating conservative social issue preferences, and embedded themselves because of a public with lesser cognitive capacity that discouraged being able to think ideologically and of a paucity of information about politics generally available to it. This environment made much more difficult understanding the internal contradictions liberalism presented within its own philosophical and data-denied incoherence and externally to core conservative values held by many who were becoming increasingly able to understand cause and effect in policy.
That’s no longer the case, as the titanic shift in partisan control of the state has demonstrated, and no politician has ridden this wave better than Vitter. While rightfully Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal by far has been the primary catalyst for policy change at the state level over the past few years, Jindal always has faced limits of his largely-pure principled conservatism that argues for right-sized government with the primary role of removing obstruction and privilege in order to allow individuals to succeed (with the exception of some crony capitalism in the area of economic development, vaguely following the theory of state-sponsored development once all the rage among less developed countries). Until his recent pivot into obstinate opposition to Common Core State Standards in education, Jindal never really attempted to present front and center a populist issue preference as part of his agenda.
By contrast, Vitter has put populist preferences onto his agenda, but selectively, while continually propagating policy based upon core conservatism. Only last week, on the occasion of issuance of a report he requested, he reminded the country about legislation he proposed a couple of years ago that would place stricter capital requirements on larger banks in order to eliminate an advantage he asserts they have over smaller banks. For years he has fought to make it easier to import drugs, saying that this would lower prices to consumers without any significant health risks. And he's not a great friend of big business in general, having most recently drawn a lukewarm rating by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. These actions tap into that latent populism and remind voters that, while his conservative credentials are without question given his voting record, he has some sympathies in this area as well. And he blends them so well that both principled and populist conservatives claim him as their own.
Thus when, in an interview last week and in written remarks after, Vitter made the most definitive statement about supporting Common Core, which goes against the populist grain, of any announced candidates for governor next year, he demonstrated again how he can create a tent large enough to incorporate a conservatism that wins elections in Louisiana. So far, both others – Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Democrat state Rep. John Bel Edwards – also have expressed support of it. But Dardenne is viewed suspiciously on tax-and-spend issues by many conservatives, and Edwards has little hope of attracting any of their votes by a strategy of presenting a socially conservative face grafted onto a liberal populist body.
Vitter had no need to stake out a populist position on this issue to attract conservative votes precisely because his conservatism is unquestioned. Nor is it a real valence issue that could add a significant slice of the electorate to his camp for, despite all the controversy and rhetoric afforded it, the issue simply isn’t one that important to many Louisiana voters – a survey this spring by academicians at Louisiana State University Baton Rouge revealed that only about half of respondents even knew anything of CCSS, and of those that did they split pretty much in opinion about it. So while a candidate might enter the race who would speak against CCSS – state Treasurer John Kennedy, who generally is allied with more populist conservatives than other major state Republicans, might jump in – it’s unlikely that alone would in net peel more than a handful of votes from a Vitter who did not condemn the standard-setting program. (And potential Democrat candidate New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently made, if anything, even a stronger pitch for CCSS.)
This illustrates why Vitter still must be considered the big favorite to succeed Jindal – he best balances the preferences of a public growing in its ability to direct its majority conservative sentiments to voting for conservative candidates while still clinging to its populist sentiments atavistically attained. The latter attitude continues to erode and probably within another generation will evaporate from the consciences of enough conservatives in Louisiana to negate the odd marriage of populist conservatism as a political force, but until then in this atmosphere Vitter stays extremely well-positioned as a politician to win elections.