Persica column for Dec. 13, 2012

Dennis Persica
Dennis Persica

There was a remarkable moment in the first debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

“I have become fond of this term, ‘Obamacare,’ ” the president said, provoking laughter from the audience. It was a surprising turn, since “Obamacare” was supposed to be a disparaging term, coined by the president’s opponents. But Obama warmed to it, while Romney seemed to want to run away from “Romneycare.”

But that was the last war. On to the next one — 2014. U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who voted in favor of Obamacare along with every other Democratic senator, may have decided the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, its official name, is not something to hide from anymore.

“I am very proud of the affordable health-care act,” Landrieu recently told Roll Call, a magazine that covers Congress. “Very proud that I voted for it.”

Landrieu also wrote a letter to Gov. Bobby Jindal, urging him to create state-run health insurance exchanges for those who can’t afford insurance at market rates and to implement an expansion of Medicaid for low-income Louisianians. The Affordable Care Act allows both but gives states the final say.

Pointing out in her letter that Obama’s re-election and an unsuccessful legal challenge mean “the law is here to stay,” Landrieu told Jindal, “simply refusing to engage in the process is not leadership.”

She urged the governor not to forfeit control of health insurance matters. And in a delicate twist of the knife, she added, “As a strong states’ rights advocate, it seems you would surely want to retain this flexibility for Louisiana.”

Landrieu’s outspokenness on Obamacare may be her attempt to mend fences with people to the left of her, smothering any potential insurrections in 2014 from other Louisiana Democrats who may not be so middle-of-the-road.

Meanwhile, Landrieu saw her right flank shored up just a bit last month when the American Petroleum Institute aired a complimentary television ad that praised her for understanding that any new federal taxes on energy would kill jobs in Louisiana.

Landrieu has a history of being able to please business interests and conservatives. Her position on the federal estate tax is closer to the Republican view than to Obama’s, for example. In 2008, she won the support of such New Orleans-area Republicans as St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand and Kevin Davis, then St. Tammany’s parish president and now a Jindal appointee as director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

It’s a long way to 2014 and things are just beginning. No matter how many nice things the API or a handful of Republicans may say about Landrieu — and no matter how many positions Landrieu may take that are in line with Republican policy — the “D” behind her name makes her a target.

While Louisiana voters may be willing to put aside party labels and vote for Landrieu the person, as they did in 2008 when she won without a runoff, the national Republican Party will be after her as it tries to win a Senate majority in 2014. In a midterm election, Landrieu won’t have the benefit of a presidential candidate at the top of the ticket to draw more of her voters to the polls, as she did in 2008.

Landrieu had better hope the economy is running full-bore by 2014, especially in Louisiana. There’s nothing like prosperity to keep voters happy with incumbents.

Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is dpersica@gmail.com.