To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never before have so many waited so long to hear so little: U.S. Sen. John Breaux is not running for governor of Louisiana after all.
Let the games begin.
But first, let's give Breaux his due. By keeping everybody -- citizens and candidates alike -- on hold for a year, he gave Republican Gov. Mike Foster every possible chance to be a real governor for one more year. That Foster declined speaks volumes about his measure as a governor; history will treat him accordingly.
Breaux, meanwhile, kept every major Democrat and even a few Republicans on the sidelines, not raising money, not even talking out loud about the next governor's race -- except to ask if Breaux had made up his mind. He traveled the state several times, talking to supporters old and new, asking their advice about his own future and that of Louisiana.
Sure, it was a great ego stroke for the senior senator, but nobody else in Louisiana knows how to stroke constituents like Breaux. Among U.S. senators, he's one of the few who hasn't gotten a fatal dose of "Potomac Fever" (thinking that everything, and everybody, that matters resides in D.C.). He has always made a point of staying in touch with folks back home, and it has paid dividends in the form of easy re-election campaigns. This latest exercise pretty much guarantees that John Breaux will be a senator for life -- if he chooses.
He would have been a clear favorite had he decided to run for governor, but in declining he summed up his reasons succinctly: "Louisiana has a 30-year investment in me that cannot be discounted."
Breaux is a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, which is where the money is. Like his predecessor Russell Long, Breaux is well placed to influence fiscal as well as non-fiscal policy. He plays his cards exceedingly well in Washington, and the delicate balance between Democrats and the GOP plays right into his hands as a compromiser and coalition builder. The truth is, he probably can do a lot more for Louisiana as a U.S. senator than he could as governor.
Which is not to say he would have been a mediocre governor. Indeed, the next governor would do well to have some of Breaux's skills at brokering compromises. At the same time, the next governor is going to have to be a reformer, even a bit of a firebrand. If not, we're going to continue to wallow somewhere below mediocrity.
Although he opted not to run, Breaux offered his thoughts on the issues that he thinks ought to frame the debate. They are education and health care. He promises to do what he can in Washington on those fronts.
The sad truth is, however, that Louisiana probably spends more (proportionately) of its annual state budget than any other state on education and health care. We just don't spend it very wisely.
In just about every other state, education and health care are local issues addressed at the local level. Citizens pay county property taxes to support county-based public schools and local or regional hospitals. In Louisiana, we keep all the purse strings in Baton Rouge, so the state takes on those responsibilities.
Breaux's observations, therefore, sound like a doctor writing a prescription for more of the same medicine that hasn't worked in the past. Then again, he did praise Louisiana's education accountability program (a reform that Mike Foster pushed, to his credit), and he noted that the recent federal education bill will dovetail nicely with the reforms already in place in Louisiana.
Still, we have a long way to go. Whoever the next governor is, he or she will need a lot of help to turn Louisiana around. By staying in the Senate, Breaux could play a key role in that effort.