Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) announced Tuesday that he would run for the office of governor of Louisiana. The Post notes, “Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), a potential 2016 presidential candidate, is term-limited, and Vitter is considered the favorite to replace him. But Vitter faces another statewide officeholder — Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne (R) — and could face a second one in state Treasurer John Kennedy (R).” If Vitter loses, he can keep his Senate seat; if he wins, he can appoint his own replacement for the remainder of his term, which runs through 2016.
Vitter survived his sex scandal, lucky to have it break far enough (2007) ahead of his 2010 reelection race. In a run for governor, this would presumably be old news. Moreover, this was a purely personal scandal, which may lead some to the conclusion that if “it’s good enough for Mrs. Vitter, it’s good enough for the voters.”
If he wins the governorship and appoints (as one would expect) a conservative successor, conservative hawks may lose an ally. Unlike Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Vitter generally resisted the isolationist trend and knee-jerk anti-NSA sentiment on the right. He’s been clear on the need for critical anti-terrorism surveillance, highly skeptical on the president’s Iran policy and supportive of defense spending. In an era in which the far right and far left sometimes coalesce on issues like the NSA, conservatives favoring a Reaganesque foreign policy will hope for continuity in national security outlook if Vitter leaves down the road.
It could also affect the balance of power within the GOP caucus on domestic policy. Not unlike Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) before his current dive into policy, Vitter has essentially been a silent junior partner for the most strident elements in the Senate, steadfastly opposing any passable immigration reform and enthusiastically favoring the government shutdown. (The so-called “Vitter amendment,” ostensibly designed to “make Congress follow Obamacare,” was, in fact, a stunt based on the false claim that staffers were getting a special break not available to other workers.) If Vitter leaves, it would be one more blow to the shutdown squad, which has suffered a drop in credibility and support since that disastrous episode.
The potential departure of a very conservative senator reminds us that “conservative” is in the eye of the beholder these days. There are hawks and isolationists, deal-makers and obstructionists, and pro- and anti-immigration forces. This places a premium on vetting candidates and forcing them to articulate their views. Some on the far right would eliminate from office anyone who doesn’t share their peculiar mix of views and political attributes. But, as Peter Wehner points out, no one has exclusive claim to the Reagan legacy:
We’re seeing some self-described Reaganites who are far more ideological and interested in doctrinal conformity than Reagan ever was. Making matters worse, they invoke the name of Reagan and claim they are his heirs. In fact they seem to know very little about the real Reagan – his temperament and graceful bearing, his governing style, and some of the basic facts of his years in office (including his bipartisan deals, his willingness to make accommodations with key elements of the Great Society and the New Deal, and his ability to pick his battles wisely and with prudence).
They revere not the real Reagan but an imaginary one – the one who validates their own zeal, their quest for doctrinal purity, and their own resentments. To invoke a line we often heard from conservatives during the Reagan years: Let Reagan be Reagan.
To the extent that we’ve had a breakdown in party unity on a range of issues, it has created a headache for leadership and seems to pose a threat to the ideological purists; but in the long run, the battle of ideas and the diversity of voices will help the GOP, the conservative movement and the country.