James Gill: Vitter beats odds with political ascendance

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican running for governor in the 2015 election, speaks to the Press Club of Baton Rouge on Monday, June 16, 2014, in Baton Rouge, La. Vitter said he would consider supporting an expansion of Louisiana's Medicaid program and needed to do more research on the Common Core education standards before taking a position on them. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte) ORG XMIT: RPMD202 Show caption
U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican running for governor in the 2015 election, speaks to the Press Club of Baton Rouge on Monday, June 16, 2014, in Baton Rouge, La. Vitter said he would consider supporting an expansion of Louisiana's Medicaid program and needed to do more research on the Common Core education standards before taking a position on them. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte) ORG XMIT: RPMD202

Getting elected governor is much easier if you have a winning personality, a sterling record in another public office and no known vices.

Two out of three will take a candidate a long way most of the time, one might do in a weak field, but a zero should be the kiss of death.

If you are rated “least effective” in your current job, have never been accused of charm or wit, played a central role in a prostitution scandal and concede you need to do “more homework” on crucial issues, the smart money says stay home.

Unless you are David Vitter. Not only is he running, but polls make him a favorite in next year’s election. He must be some kind of political genius.

Consider the difference between him and Bob Livingston, who was poised to become speaker when he was obliged to resign from the House of Representatives in 1999 after being outed as an adulterer. Vitter had moved up to the Senate before his own sexual transgressions came to light, and the madam who had facilitated them committed suicide.

Vitter could not be blamed for her fate, but the whole imbroglio was considerably more unsavory than Livingston’s extramarital dalliances. Vitter nevertheless chose to brazen it out, and, when time came for him to seek re-election, he was up against U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, an alleged ally of President Barack Obama. Voters preferred a whoring right-winger by a wide margin.

It may be that memories of the D.C. madam have receded enough to be a nonfactor in the governor’s race, although Democrats will presumably seek to revive the issue.

They are certainly making hay of an analysis of the last Congress conducted by the Brookings Institution, which found that Vitter, having failed to get any of his 61 bills passed, was the biggest flop in the Senate. There may be other measures of performance in a senator, but an inability to legislate must count as a significant flaw. The Democrats now put “least effective member of the Senate” in front of Vitter’s name every time.

Still, a politician can overcome an indifferent record if he can wow them on the stump. The gift of gab has certainly stood former Gov. Edwin Edwards in good stead throughout his career, for instance, and, even though he is now rather long in the tooth, he no doubt still will be getting plenty of laughs as he campaigns for Congress.

By contrast, Vitter’s speaking style inclines to the leaden, and there are few more painful spectacles in American politics than his occasional attempts to be light-hearted or amusing. He was at it the other day when he appeared at the Baton Rouge Press Club and allowed that he wasn’t campaigning for a spot on “Duck Dynasty.”

The thought of the rock-ribbed Vitter among the rednecks is pretty quaint at that, but, if he raised a smile, it was not because he intended to make a joke at his own expense. That is not his style, and his obvious purpose was to take a dig at Jindal, who looked pretty silly himself when he showed up on the “Duck Dynasty” set. Vitter certainly doesn’t get on with Jindal, but then Vitter has not survived so long in office because he is one of the boys. A list of the politicians he doesn’t get on with would fill a book.

At his Press Club appearance, Vitter did suggest he might not be so opposed to Medicaid expansion as Jindal but said other issues would need further study. While Jindal has now announced he will withdraw from Common Core, Vitter explained that, while he wants Lousiana students held to stringent universal standards, he is also for local autonomy. Fair enough. He is not the first candidate to come out boldly for having his cake and eating it, too.

Polls at this stage may not mean all that much, but Vitter has millions in hand for the campaign and must be doing something right. Whatever that is, it is not always obvious.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.