You know the Gulf oil disaster has turned the nation's politics upside down when Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser consistently outshines President Barack Obama and Gov. Bobby Jindal on the evening news. The reason is simple: Nungesser is closer to the problem and knows what he's talking about. He's also unafraid to step out of his comfort zone to make a point or get something done.
That's the basic problem for both Obama and Jindal: A disaster of this magnitude requires that they step out of their respective comfort zones. So far, neither man has shown much willingness to do so.
Obama, for example, refuses to budge on his knee-jerk six-month moratorium on offshore drilling — an overreaction that clearly was intended to placate his supporters in the environmental community after he had authorized an expansion of drilling in federal waters in the Gulf. The president thus seems more concerned with the politics of the situation than the resolution, despite his rhetoric.
For his part, Jindal has declined to support legislation that would allow the state attorney general to hire high-powered plaintiff attorneys on a contingency-fee basis to represent Louisiana in what is sure to be a massive lawsuit against BP — a position that no doubt pleases the governor's conservative base but nonetheless puts his ideological purity above the state's best interests.
To be fair, Jindal has given Attorney General Buddy Caldwell $5 million to begin ramping up a case against BP. And House members have added millions more to the state budget bill to supplement that initial investment. But Jindal needs to do much more, and it will require him stepping out of his comfort zone.
For starters, the governor should support state Sen. Joel Chaisson's bill to allow contingency-fee contracts, at least in this case. Doing so would require Jindal to acknowledge that trial lawyers are not the demons his corporate donors like to rail against.
The truth is Louisiana has some of the best class-action environmental attorneys in the country. They have successfully taken on Big Oil and other polluters over the years, and that experience has honed their skills for a fight such as this. BP has already retained local defense lawyers, and it likewise is hiring local and national experts to fortify itself in court. Jindal must respond in kind, even though it might mean sacrificing some of his precious ideological purity.
If the governor genuinely wants to hold BP accountable for all costs associated with this disaster, he must support giving Caldwell the authority he needs to hire the best environmental plaintiff attorneys available to take on the oil giant. He must step out of his comfort zone. It's what leaders do.
CLARIFICATION: In a recent column about transparency, I wrote that not enough legislators from either political party were helping folks like Rep. Wayne Waddell and Sen. Robert Adley (both Republicans) resist Gov. Bobby Jindal's efforts to preserve official secrecy in the governor's office. In response, state Rep. John Bel Edwards of Amite, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, challenged my criticism of Democrats on that issue. He correctly noted that Rep. Neil Abramson had authored several transparency bills that Jindal vetoed or killed in recent years. "Neil is just one stalwart for open government in our caucus," Edwards wrote to me. "Ethics reform and transparency are not partisan issues."
Edwards makes a good point, particularly about Abramson's bills, which this newspaper has consistently supported. I certainly did not intend to slight the efforts of Abramson and others on this issue, but my point remains that not enough legislators in either party have taken up the cause. We hope more will going forward.