Opinion | The “Why Not Me?” Syndrome

Graphic design above by The Bayou Brief

A Cheat Sheet to Peter “Adrastos” Athas’ Louisiana Lexicography 

The nickname and proper pronunciation for the Great State of Louisiana. 

A group of Americans, almost exclusively white men, who suffer from the delusion that the Confederacy was a noble cause led by good and patriotic men who are worthy of public glorification. Lost Causers believe the removal of monuments celebrating those men is equivalent to erasing history.      

The nickname for former Louisiana Gov. Earl Kemp Long, brother of Huey P. Long and often considered one of the most colorful politicians in the state’s history. Uncle Earl was once committed by his wife into a mental institution in Texas, then moved to a facility in Louisiana, whereupon he fired the head of the state’s hospitals, replaced him with an ally, and returned to the Governor’s Mansion. 

Louisiana’s junior U.S. Senator’s full name is John Neely Kennedy. Although he goes by “John Kennedy,” there is only one John Kennedy in American politics. Out of respect for his memory, Louisiana’s junior Senator is commonly known as “Neely.”

The midterms were exciting. The president* made them a bit too exciting, but there are indications that some of his more extreme rhetoric backfired. Let’s hope so. I have been avoiding the topic of future elections, especially 2020, like Dracula avoids mirrors and garlic. I’m not superstitious, but there were more important things to focus on. 

Now that the voters have put the brakes on a megalomaniacal president*, it’s time to turn our attention to future elections both here, in what Uncle Earl and I call the Gret Stet, and nationally.

The election of Donald Trump, who I call the Insult Comedian for obvious reasons, has led to a rash of Why Not Me candidacies. Ambitious politicians are asking themselves: if he can win a general election, Why Not Me?

Why Not Me syndrome is nothing new. Jimmy Carter’s out of nowhere win in 1976 led to many asking that very question. (Ironically Carter’s campaign biography was titled Why Not The Best?) In this cycle, a losing Congressional candidate in West Virginia says he’s running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. In addition to being largely unknown even in his home state, Richard Ojeda has an even bigger problem: He voted for Trump in 2016. Anyone not afflicted with Why Not Me syndrome would realize this makes them a non-starter.

You’re probably wondering when I’m going to make this column relevant to The Bayou Brief. There’s no time like the present even if I can’t promise brevity. There will be plenty of Bayouness if such a thing exists.

In 2015, Gret Stet politics had its own Why Not Me moment. I recall mocking John Bel Edwards in the early stages of his gubernatorial campaign. I thought a state representative from Tangipahoa Parish had no chance of saving the state from David Vitter. I even briefly flirted with the notion of supporting sane Republican Jay Dardenne since I thought no Democrat could win.

I was wrong. Edwards won, and Dardenne now works for him.

Timing is everything in politics, especially for a Why Not Me candidate. John Bel’s time had come: Eight years of Bobby Jindal’s wrecking ball approach to state government and David Vitter’s whoremongering made things ripe for a Mister Clean. Make that Captain Clean, Edwards’ West Point degree was part of the attraction.

Now that I’ve set the table, it’s time for the entrée. How tasty you’ll find it is up to you.

Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu seems to have looked in the mirror and posed the question: Why Not Me? Landrieu used his book tour in support of In The Shadow of Statues as a way of taking the nation’s political pulse.

Landrieu’s higher national profile has led to widespread speculation back home that he’s interested in running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. He’s neither confirmed nor denied the notion. Instead, he’s basking in the attention that Why Not Me-ism can bring a politician.

Besides, the speculation can’t hurt book sales.

The former mayor is a polarizing figure in New Orleans: He inspires affection and admiration in some quarters but disdain and derision elsewhere. He has rabid critics on the right merely for being Moon Landrieu’s son as well as among Lost Causers for removing their beloved Confederate monuments. There are many older white folks in the metro area who despise all Landrieus because of Moon’s integrationist fervor during his 1970-78 Mayoralty.

Mitch Landrieu’s nickname among the cleverer members of this crowd is Half Moon, which is not half bad.

Landrieu has his critics on the local left as well. They see him as an arch-gentrifier who never met a developer he didn’t like. Some are up-in-arms as to what they claim was his high-jacking of the monuments issue. I think this is an unfair charge. The folks behind Take ‘Em Down NOLA could have never convinced the City Council to remove the monuments. That took mayoral influence and political muscle.

I’m in the middle about Mitch Landrieu’s mayoral record.

On the plus side, he put the city’s fiscal house in order after the disastrous Nagin administration. Unfortunately, he allowed the AirBnB menace to spread to the point where it has dramatically impacted housing prices. Our once affordable city has become too expensive for many longtime residents, especially working class and poor African Americans.

Landrieu’s mayoral Achilles Heel is the Sewerage & Water Board. He justifiably took a lot of flak when it flooded on my birthday in 2017. (I’m still annoyed at hearing about the August 5th flood: gimme back my birthday, y’all.) The problems linger and make it harder for Landrieu to claim mayoral greatness.

I think he was a good but not great mayor.

How does that effect his national ambitions?

All national candidates have enemies at home. “No prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown” is probably the one verse in the Bible known by every atheist who works as a political consultant.  You’re not much of a leader if you haven’t stirred up any local controversies. And besides, Landrieu can spin his mayoral record quite well: His presentation skills are first-rate.

Other than several favorable articles in Politico and a secret Facebook group here in New Orleans, there does not appear to be much of a groundswell for a Landrieu presidential candidacy. Mayors have not fared well in presidential politics: Grover Cleveland was the last big city mayor to win the presidency, but the former Buffalo mayor was Governor of New York at the time of his victory 134 years ago. Additionally, there’s a wealthier former Mayor who has his own case of Why Not Me syndrome, Michael Bloomberg.

BUT in a crowded field with no frontrunner under the age of seventy, Landrieu’s Why Not Me credentials remain intact. He looks in the mirror and sees the next Jimmy Carter: Why Not Me?

Will he run? Probably not, but Why Not Me fever is hard to shake.

There’s another Louisiana politician who seems to have come down with a bad case of Why Not Me syndrome: Sen. John Neely Kennedy, hereinafter Neely. He finally won a Senate seat on his third try; the first was as a liberal-ish Democrat for whom I voted in 2004. As a Republican, Neely challenged and lost to incumbent Mary Landrieu (I think you know whose older sister she is) in 2008 and finally won the seat vacated by the man I call Bitter Vitter in 2016.

I initially pooh-poohed the idea that Neely would run for Governor in 2019. He spent 12 years lusting after a Senate seat and has become something of a conservative sound bite machine on Capitol Hill. The media loves it when he “hicks it up” and makes weed killer jokes, but it’s off-putting to many observers. Here’s how I put it at my blog First Draft:

“Neely remains a political mystery. He’s an intelligent, well-educated man who persists in acting like a village idiot.”

I thought Neely had the job he wanted, but he appears to be considering a challenge to Gov. Edwards. Why Not Me-ism led Neely to reckon that if an obscure state rep from rural Louisiana could be governor, he could be the one to take him out.

As much fun as I’ve had at Sen. Kennedy’s expense over the years, he would be the most formidable Republican challenger. State Attorney General Jeff Landry may have hoped to have the field to himself, but his decision to run for re-election instead could be a tell about  Neely’s intentions, which he claims will be revealed to the public on Dec. 1st.  If Edwards wins, Landry can go back to throwing monkey wrenches and generally being a pest. It’s what he does best. If Neely wins, he could actually appoint Landry as his interim replacement.

Neely’s team of consultants haven’t made much of an effort to conceal their own hopes that he will challenge Edwards, but that may not mean his mind has been made up: Consultants make their money campaigning, not governing. There is also another reason Neely has been so hesitant. Deep-pocketed Republican donors to his Senate campaign are reportedly not amused by his perpetual campaigning, for which they’ve footed the bills. And when he came to them only two years ago for funding his Senate election, he pitched the importance of building Louisiana’s seniority.   

Still, the Why Not Me syndrome is a powerful thing. It causes ambitious men and women to dream big and shoot for the political moon.

Mitch Landrieu may decide not to spend the next 13-14 months in Iowa and New Hampshire, but if he doesn’t run, he’ll still ask himself, why not me?