No-Geaux Breaux

John Breaux's decision last week not to run for governor of Louisiana ultimately wasn't surprising ' which makes it even more damaging to Breaux's reputation in his home state, and more embarrassing for Breaux supporters, Attorney General Charles Foti and the Louisiana Democratic Party.

For the last month, Breaux has nurtured a masterful campaign to keep his name at the forefront of Louisiana political chatter. He consulted with supporters and played footsies with reporters at a quasi-press conference in Lake Charles, talking about campaign-slogan bumper stickers and telling reporter John Hill, "I think I made it clear that I am planning to run for governor." Following that less-than-declarative statement, Breaux retreated to his modus operandi of vanishing out of sight and coyly implying that an opinion from Foti on his eligibility to run would be the last hurdle before he began his campaign in earnest. When Foti finally punted last week and declined to offer a definitive opinion, Breaux played the part of the noble and gallant soul who only wants what's best for the state of Louisiana.

"For me to run now," he claimed in his statement last Friday, "means that we would face a campaign based on an eligibility to run, with the prospects of being in a courtroom only weeks before the elections. The election must not be an old style campaign of political destruction, but a debate on who has the best ideas ..."

This suggests that if Foti had given him the favorable opinion he was hoping for, there would have been no Republican lawsuits filed against his eligibility. Does Breaux really think the people of Louisiana are naive enough to believe that?

As Foti observed in his response, it is well documented in Louisiana judicial opinion that courts favor allowing a candidate to run, leaving it to voters to decide if the candidate is qualified. Breaux knew this long before Foti's ruling and said as much to various media outlets. So what did Foti's ruling change? Breaux knew that regardless of Foti's opinion, the state Republican Party was going to go all-out in its legal challenge to his candidacy ' and there was also a very good chance that the courts would have ruled in his favor, given the Louisiana Constitution's failure to define citizenship.

What made Breaux change his mind? Chances are Breaux decided he just didn't have the stomach or stamina to wage what promised to be an epic, hard-fought campaign for governor. That hardly sounds like the kind of leader Louisiana needs as it continues rebuilding after 2005's devastating hurricanes.

Most embarrassing for the state Democratic Party and Breaux's biggest supporters, all the warning signs were there. Breaux staged this same performance while he was still a U.S. senator, running around the state and holding high-profile public and private meetings and giving every indication he'd become a candidate for governor, only to pull out as enthusiasm and momentum had reached a fever pitch.

This time, the political stakes were much, much higher. Would Gov. Kathleen Blanco still have pulled out of the race if Breaux wasn't waiting in the wings and telling people he was interested in the job? Probably, but one thing is clear: Breaux, the supposed savior and white knight for the Louisiana Democratic Party, has now made it that much more difficult for other potential Democratic candidates to run. They'll have less time to raise campaign funds and will have to overcome perceptions of being the Democrats' second choices and token candidates.

Those possible candidates know it, too. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, considered one of the top choices, announced Monday that he wouldn't join the fray.

Fellow Democrat Foti's re-election just got that much tougher, too. Foti already faces an uphill battle after accusing a doctor and two nurses of homicide at Memorial Medical Center during post-Katrina conditions. Prominent Democratic supporters such as Lafayette attorney Glenn Armentor firmly believe that Foti clearly had the law on his side to issue a favorable ruling for Breaux. Now that Foti passed the Breaux hot potato and faces the perception that he derailed Breaux's candidacy, it's hard to imagine he'll generate much enthusiasm from Democrats.

It's the voters who stand to lose the most after Breaux's waffling and Foti's timidity. We need the best elected leadership possible, and there is no process that better tests the qualifications for the state's highest office than the gauntlet of a challenging election campaign. With Breaux's exit, there's a decreasing chance that 35-year-old U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal and his ideas will be put to much of a test. The Louisiana Republican Party has endorsed Jindal to the dismay of fellow Republican challengers Walter Boasso and John Georges, while north Louisiana Democrat Foster Campbell is running on a tax-the-oil-companies stance that's failed to generate much enthusiasm in the past.

Campaigns without meaningful debate and dialogue can sometimes have lasting, unfortunate consequences. Consider the case study of Buddy Roemer, a bright young Republican congressman with lots of great ideas. Roemer made the 1987 runoff against incumbent Edwin Edwards, but in the end voters never saw him under the fire of a one-on-one competition because Democrat Edwards dropped out of the race. The following four years of the Roemer administration were largely a disaster.