WASHINGTON -- Ever since her disputed election to the U.S.
Senate from Louisiana six years ago, Mary Landrieu has nimbly performed the
dance favored these days by many Southern Democrats seeking statewide
office: voting liberal and talking conservative. Thanks to her state's
baroque election laws, however, she may trip in quest of a second term.
Sen. Landrieu campaigned as George W. Bush's best friend in
Louisiana's Nov. 5 election against three Republican opponents, but failed
to reach the 50 percent needed for election, thanks to an anemic
African-American turnout. Now, with the White House mobilized behind
Republican Suzanne Haik Terrell, Landrieu has to appeal to black voters
without alienating her white support.
Writ large in Louisiana, this is the dilemma faced by Landrieu's
Southern colleagues. When I arrived in Washington in 1957, all 22 U.S.
Senate seats from the states of the old Confederacy were held by Democrats
(as they had been for nearly a century since Reconstruction). Now, in the
new Congress, only eight of these senators will be Democrats. Landrieu's
possible fall would make it seven.
Just how difficult it is for Landrieu under campaign pressure
was shown when she and Terrell appeared jointly on NBC's "Meet the Press"
Sunday. Asked by moderator Tim Russert whether she would vote to make
permanent President Bush's tax reduction, she went into denial: "I will vote
to extend the tax cut if we can afford to do it, if our military doesn't
need the money or Social Security."
Russert persisted, asking, "Can we afford it as we speak today?"
"We can if we can get the economy going again," she replied. "But if we
can't get this economy going as of today, can we afford it?" "I don't know
what we can afford right now." When Russert asked the tax question a fourth
time, she replied with a non sequitur: "This senator is not going to leave
our guys in the middle of Afghanistan without the weapons they need or the
support they need."
That Landrieu has been in the Senate the past six years is
testimony to Louisiana's distinctive political hijinks. On Election Day
1996, mid-afternoon exit polls showed State Rep. Woody Jenkins with a clear
advantage against Landrieu to become the state's first Republican senator of
the 20th century. Also threatened was local option for video poker and
riverboat casinos. Gambling interests immediately dispatched a convoy of
buses to New Orleans' predominantly black housing projects after 5 p.m. to
recruit voters. The gambling industry saved itself and Mary Landrieu.
Landrieu in the Senate attached herself to the state's senior
senator, Democrat John Breaux. In fact, she followed a risky course unlike
her famously clever colleague's. While sounding like Bill Clinton on
television talk shows, Breaux hugs the middle of the road -- rated 55
percent by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) and 48 percent
by the American Conservative Union (ACU). In contrast, Landrieu adopted
moderate rhetoric while voting 85 percent liberal (ADA) and 28 percent
Their divided votes on some 200 issues are even more vivid. A
Prohibit federal funding of abortion: Landrieu, no; Breaux, yes.
Mandatory trigger locks: Landrieu, yes; Breaux, no. Broad prescription drug
coverage under Medicare: Landrieu, yes; Breaux, no. Federal funding for
school distribution of "morning after" pills: Landrieu, yes; Breaux, no.
While Landrieu repeatedly declared her support for the president
prior to Nov. 5, she was seldom there when Bush needed her. She voted
against confirmation of John Ashcroft as attorney general and Theodore Olson
as solicitor general, against school vouchers and against the Bush
administration on a variety of budget questions, including caps on spending.
Most recently, she was lined up with government workers unions
to restrict presidential control over employees of the new Department of
Homeland Security. Nevertheless, on a key procedural vote Tuesday necessary
for expedited passage of homeland security, Landrieu was one of only three
Democrats (not including Breaux) to join the Republican phalanx. While
desperate to generate African-American support on Dec. 7, she cannot
alienate the 35 percent of the white vote that she needs. On Tuesday night,
she voted against Bush judicial nominee Dennis Shedd, who was opposed by
black organizations. It's really hard being a Southern Democrat.