Column: There’s a lesson for both parties in the Louisiana election — but not the one you’ve heard

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards may be a Democrat, but on abortion and gun rights he's no liberal.
(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards won an impressive reelection victory on Saturday. But the most important lesson isn’t the one everyone is talking about.

The Beltway buzz is almost entirely focused on how this was a defeat for President Trump. And, in fairness, Trump literally asked for it. “You got to give me a big win, please. OK? OK?” he implored the crowd at a Louisiana rally.

He campaigned hard — in person and on Twitter — for Edwards’ Republican opponent, Eddie Rispone, in a state Trump carried by 20 points in 2016. This was the second governor’s race in less than a month in which Trump tried to make the race a referendum on himself. So it’s understandable that the Trump-centric press would focus on this, particularly at a time when the president needs party unity in the face of an impeachment inquiry.

But there’s a far more important takeaway: That what is good for the Republican Party isn’t necessarily what is good for conservatives — and the same holds true for liberals and Democrats.

Edwards is in many ways a fairly conventional Democrat. But on gun control and abortion he’s far more conservative than his party. Whether he holds these positions out of conviction or political necessity I have no way of knowing. Nor does it much matter. The point is that when a Democrat wins by embracing conservative issues, that’s a huge victory for conservatives. In other words, while Republicans lost in Louisiana, conservatism triumphed.


Think of it this way. Imagine you are a staunch opponent of abortion. Is it better for your cause if opposition to abortion is a purely partisan issue?

By every conceivable metric — save perhaps party fundraising — it’s better if opposition to abortion can be found in both parties, because that is the best insurance policy that your preferred policy can survive an election disaster. If your party loses its majority in Washington or in the state capital, your cause isn’t automatically in jeopardy.

The smartest people in the pro-life movement have always understood the need for a coalition across party lines, which is why figures like the late left-wing columnist, Nat Hentoff, and the late Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey were welcomed into the tent by pro-lifers.

The calculus is different for political parties, whose primary purpose is to win elections. If by magic you could persuade all of America overnight to oppose abortion, it would be a total victory for abortion opponents — but it would be a disaster for the Republican Party. That’s because the GOP benefits from owning the abortion issue. The party’s dominance on the issue keeps large numbers of voters voting the straight Republican ticket, and it drives a lot of fundraising as well. Conversely, if you could tap your ruby slippers three times and convince every American voter to support abortion rights, it would be a complete victory for abortion rights supporters, but a devastating blow for Democrats, who benefit immensely from being the pro-choice party.

The same logic applies to gun rights. It’s much easier to protect the 2nd Amendment if it has robust defenders in both parties, which is why the National Rifle Assn. used to support Democratic candidates as well.

The rise of extreme partisan polarization has blinded many ideologues of the left and right to this dynamic. The conservative movement’s takeover of the Republican Party was never supposed to be an end in itself. The point of moving the GOP rightward was to ultimately move the country rightward as well. Unfortunately, much of the conservative movement has come to see GOP victories as ends, not means. Something similar has plagued the progressive cause as well. Many intellectuals and activists on the right and left seem to think their job is to be political consultants for their respective parties.

As a limited government, free market conservative I see the sudden popularity on the right of protectionism, industrial policy and, in some quarters, nationalized healthcare as a victory for progressives for the simple reason that it moves the political center of gravity leftward. Liberals should cheer these developments, yet few do because partisanship overpowers everything else. Similarly, conservatives should look at a Democrat winning on their issues as a sign of progress, but few do for the same reason.

Lasting victories for conservatives and progressives aren’t measured in election returns, they’re measured in what voters expect politicians in both parties will do once elected. Moving those expectations rightward (or leftward for progressives) is far more important than getting Republicans (or Democrats) elected. But that requires rational thinking, which is in short supply these days.