Stephanie Grace: Dardenne protecting slogan, ambitions

Let’s get this much straight. Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne is not a member of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration. Although both are Republicans, they did not run as a ticket, and there’s no evidence whatsoever that they coordinate their politics; in fact, all evidence points to the contrary.

And just like every lieutenant governor before him and all that will follow, Dardenne has no say over the state’s policies on health care or most other major matters. Unless and until something happens to the governor, his domain is pretty much limited to culture, recreation and tourism.

Louisianans who follow politics know all this, but these basic facts seem lost on the national liberal activist group MoveOn, which erected a billboard in Baton Rouge riffing on the state’s trademarked tourism marketing slogan and logo, “Louisiana: Pick Your Passion,” and attacking Jindal for adamantly refusing to accept federal money to expand Medicaid coverage for Louisiana residents.

When Dardenne objected and sent a cease-and-desist order, the group reacted with what can only be called gleeful outrage and immediately incorporated the alleged assault on its right to free speech by Jindal and his supposed cronies into its national advertising and fundraising efforts. It’s not clear whether the group’s strategists don’t know the lay of the land or simply don’t care, but they’re obviously quite pleased with how it’s all played out so far.

Dardenne’s not. He has now filed suit to “aggressively defend” the marketing campaign, as he put it. He says his office has spent $69 million to promote, including $30 million from BP to counter negative publicity from its 2010 oil spill, much of which was funneled to parishes on the condition that they include the “Pick Your Passion” theme in their advertising. He says MoveOn has every right to free speech as long as it leaves his logo and slogan out of it, and that satire’s fine, but it needs to be aimed at the appropriate agency. That would be the Governor’s Office, not his.

And that would be that, if not for the small matter that Dardenne plans to run to replace Jindal next year. While his attitudes and actions toward Medicaid expansion carry little weight in his current role, they may have enormous consequences in the future.

So consider this little dust-up a preview of what’s likely to be a contentious debate once the campaign gets going.

Politically, Dardenne may actually get some immediate advantage out of his showdown with MoveOn, in that it could help shore up his conservative credentials against his best-known opponent, U.S. Sen. David Vitter — even if he winds up coming down to the left of Vitter in a potential runoff. That’s been the path to victory for several other Republicans in GOP-dominated races, particularly new U.S. Rep. Vance McAllister, who has embraced the expansion.

Dardenne’s showing no sign of going that far. In an interview Friday, he came down so hard on President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which allows for the largely federally funded expansion of the insurance program for the poor, that he could have been mistaken for a Jindal apologist.

“I think Obamacare is one of the worst pieces of legislation to ever come out of the U.S. Congress,” he said. He also endorsed Jindal’s rejection of a pure expansion of Medicaid.

But he said he’s open to exploring waivers or other avenues that would allow the state to tap into the money, a possibility that, he noted, Jindal’s ideological intransigence has short-circuited.

“The jury’s still out on what we should do,” he said. “I don’t think Louisiana has made the kind of inquiry of whether there’s a potential waiver to be negotiated.”

Dardenne said he’s not necessarily embracing the so-called Arkansas model, where the feds have allowed the state to purchase private insurance for those who make too little to qualify for other subsidies, but would be interested in trying to negotiate “a more favorable interpretation” of the rules. He said he’s particularly looking forward to watching the Legislature debate the issue during the session, even though the proposed constitutional amendment to go around Jindal and let voters decide whether to expand Medicaid is given little chance of passing.

“I don’t think there’s been adequate discussion of what’s possible,” he added. “Frankly, it’s been couched in a purely partisan context.”

In essence, Dardenne’s hinting at a more nuanced discussion that many politicians and health care administrators privately acknowledge the state needs to have — once Jindal’s national ambitions are no longer a factor, and the population’s poverty and the sustainability of those newly privatized public hospitals reclaim their rightful places in the debate.

Dardenne’s fight with MoveOn will be over soon enough. As for the debate over the underlying issue, well, we’re just getting started.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes.