Gov. Kathleen Blanco's decision to pull out of the governor's race last week was cheered by many who have been clamoring for change in Louisiana, but it also unleashed an interesting new force on the political landscape: Blanco herself.
Many retired politicians have told me that facing the end of their political careers made them feel "liberated" for the first time in years. Almost to a person, they describe in euphoric terms how good it feels not to have to worry about stepping on someone's toes -- and how they relish the idea of telling people to "shove it" if that's how they feel. For most of them, leaving politics was not a voluntary decision; they lost bids for re-election. Blanco has the distinction of taking herself out of the fray with more than nine months left in her term, albeit for reasons not entirely to her liking.
Still, Blanco stands in an unusual position, politically: she leaves on her own terms. Like most things in politics, that's a double-edged sword. One can make a convincing argument that she enters her lame-duck period very early and will wield less influence than ever. That may in fact happen.
On the other hand, she enters a critical election-year legislative session with absolutely nothing to lose. How many legislators can make that statement? In politics and in war, the last thing you want is an adversary with absolutely nothing to lose. That makes Blanco someone to reckon with in the coming legislative session -- if she plays her cards right -- and Republican lawmakers better take note.
In recent legislative sessions, particularly those post-Katrina, Republicans and a good many pundits have questioned Blanco's motives at every turn, frequently accusing her of promoting this or that recovery program or legislative proposal to bolster her re-election chances. That criticism was very effective against Blanco, but it is off the table now.
In fact, the tables are turned. Blanco can promote her ideas without fear of having her motives questioned -- and when her adversaries rise in opposition, she will be the one who can accuse them of playing re-election politics. Moreover, she's still the governor. She has veto power -- and line-item veto power at that. Who knows, she might even improve her standing and credibility among voters.
Right now, I'd have to say the likeliest scenario is a legislative free-for-all. With term limits kicking in, lawmakers who are not seeking other offices might be thinking about their legacies. If they are, this is their last chance to leave one. Blanco can tap into that sentiment by promoting programs that are good for the long haul.
Those who are seeking other offices will be looking to score points with voters before the fall elections. Trouble is, many of those who are seeking other offices are running against other lawmakers. That will make for a contentious session as legislators try to one-up each other. That could play to Blanco's advantage as well. She will have the luxury of picking her battles and not having to worry about being second-guessed politically.
In most election-year sessions, lawmakers strive to avoid controversy. That won't be possible this year. For one thing, it's a fiscal session. They will be blessed with a huge surplus, but cursed with an attentive media -- including bloggers of all stripes -- and a public that's more tuned in than ever. Attempts to buy voters' affections will be labeled just that, and voters will be reminded over and over where lawmakers stand on critical reforms.
If I had to bet, I'd put my money on big changes in the fall. Voters are very dissatisfied with Blanco, but they are far from sated by her demise. Her decision only whets their appetite, in fact. They'll want more red meat come October.
By year's end, term limits may wind up being a secondary factor in the story of the largest legislative turnover in memory. It may be that voters want a whole new set of faces in Baton Rouge -- not just a rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic.
By canceling her ticket early, Kathleen Blanco may have charted the safest -- and smartest -- course of all.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Voters are very dissatisfied with Blanco, but they are far from sated by her demise. They'll want more red meat come October.