The Republican has ascended to becoming the most consequential of his party in the state’s history because he has done well to meld principled conservatism with the anti-conservative populism declining but still ingrained in the state’s political culture. While never being mistaken for anything but a genuine conservative – his lifetime American Conservative Union voting scorecard record in Congress being 92.4 – his occasional forays into populist issues that seek to portray him as fighting for the common man against oppressive bureaucracy that favors special interests at the little guy’s expense allow him to tap into the political right’s less-reasoned, more-visceral conservative strain of populism.
Common Core is an issue made to take on populist interpretations, on which both the left and right have jumped wholeheartedly. While the left spins fables that the enterprise, which identifies learning methods and creates learning goals that should be reached by these, constitutes some kind of corporate takeover of education designed to line pockets of bogeymen and to grind teachers into dust, the right has more rational concerns that standards of achievement will mutate into national control of education content by an aggressive federal government. Either line fits into a populist paradigm.
Vitter only months ago gave general approval to CCSS, but now insists that after further data has come his way, echoing the same journey Gov. Bobby Jindal says he made, he sees too much impending evidence that the federal government potentially can grab control of the movement in a way to reconfigure standards into content. Now he argues that Louisiana should come up with its own standards and tests – the latter paralleling Jindal’s unverified assertion that testing inevitably must drive curricula.
By this reversal, Vitter adds this populist issue to the portfolio of traditional conservative preferences where he stands unquestioned ideologically. It pulls more wind out of the sails of a potential populist conservative challenger such as state Treasurer John Kennedy and even takes a bit away from the current Democrat consolation candidate state Rep. John Bel Edwards, who slowly has been edging towards CCSS opposition in order to keep his Angry Left base in the fold and thereby discourage other liberals from running. Since the other two announced candidates, Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle do not declare a pox on CCSS, Vitter’s declaration has given him as an electoral home to many conservative CCSS opponents who likely outnumber whatever supporters of it who will flee him as a result of this conversion.
Whether this has any substantive policy impact is another matter. In the short run, while some may argue that it adds impetus to CCSS repeal efforts – because education policy-making is left in the hands of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and its appointed superintendent that only state law can override its wishes and its current majority favors CCSS – by giving moral support to anti-CCSS legislators, that position still seems favored only by a distinct minority of legislators who could not even get any anti-CCSS bill to a floor vote by passage out of a committee. Both chairmen of their respective chambers’ education committees, Republicans state Rep. Steve Carter and state Sen. Conrad Appel, favor CCSS and it seems likely both would be able to hold enough committee members in line to prevent committee passage of similar bills next year.
The year after could be a different matter if Vitter, so far favored in polls, wins. If CCSS opposition becomes a big enough issue preference, it could be that enough legislators with anti-CCSS views get elected or adopt them to force BESE into doing an about-face. As well, if that also becomes a prominent stance among victors in the BESE contests held simultaneously, whether through defeat of incumbents or their changing of minds that, separately or together, also could cause reversal. And a governor can help BESE decide things his way as he have three appointment to the 11-person body.
But several factors make this unlikely. Vitter’s policy agenda will be crowded and he may not feel able to commit enough political capital to such a move depending upon his ambitions for other items on it. Carter and Appel look like probable reelection candidates, so Vitter would have to use resources to depose them and then try to build majorities. Many incumbent pro-CCSS legislators will win reelection because it is one among many issues and only a distinct minority of voters will see it as a make-or-break stance in their voting decision, so, depending on the results, that may be a bridge too far for him.
Vitter could try to follow his lead of the past by tipping the scales in his favor through aggressive resource direction to compatible legislative candidates. Intervention by his Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority political action committee may have help some GOP legislators to victory in 2011. But then he had the luxury of being a just-reelected senator; in 2015, he’ll also be fighting for governor and would be unlikely to divide attention and resources into helping certain candidates who if they failed to win would leave opponents antagonized by that action.
Or he could take a cue from Jindal, who in those 2011 elections aided several BESE candidates in their victories that brought a pro-reform majority to the panel. By doing the same in regards to an anti-CCSS majority, he could get BESE to dump CCSS on its own, especially as the policy agenda for BESE being so much narrower than for the Legislature means that the CCSS issue will loom much larger in voters’ decisions. However, Jindal had the luxury of a huge amount of resources and no quality opposition to his reelection bid, while Vitter in all likelihood would have nothing to spare in fending off by the looks of it at least a few quality challengers, so it would seem inopportune for him to mount even a minor effort to influence those elections.
Maybe things will fall into place for Vitter and the environment from 2016 on will be much more favorable for some kind of CCSS repeal. Yet that’s far from certain, and one other factor will provide a brake on that kind of effort: by the time he would be in any position to obstruct CCSS in any way, already Louisiana schools will have experienced three years under the program. It may be so burrowed in by that time that Herculean efforts and Croesus-like money (a new testing regime, even if part of the transformation involved getting rid of the law that requires a test that can be compared to other states, still would cost millions of dollars and considerable time to concoct) would make it cost-ineffective to undo.
Vitter may know this in fact, and thereby could view his new articulation as lip service. But do not mistake it for empty posturing out of political convenience. For Vitter’s political career is entirely consistent with preaching on the populist side here and there, so it’s probably not so much calculation as it is his nature to surrender to a populist orientation in the case of CCSS.