Since he became governor, it’s been the worst-kept secret in Louisiana politics: Bobby Jindal can’t wait to leave Louisiana and run for president. Despite his boilerplate “I have the job I want” response to early inquiries about his frequent fundraising trips to early caucus and key primary states, Jindal could never plausibly deny his higher ambitions.
So much so that he recently admitted “everybody knows” he is “thinking” about it. Consider that a prelude to “praying over” his decision and “talking it over with his family” before officially announcing the obvious.
In typical Jindal fashion, the rollout of his budding candidacy was tightly scripted and contrived. In late March, Jindal told the Heritage Foundation’s conservative news service, “It’s something we’re thinking about. It’s something we’ll pray about.” In early April, he told an NPR interviewer, “There’s a practical benefit to having governors run for president.”
But even an eternal political optimist like Jindal must admit that he faces a long, uphill climb to win the Republican nomination, let alone the White House. At least a half-dozen other Republicans consistently poll better than he among GOP voters looking to 2016.
Jindal admirers note that he’s still young (he’s 42), and that’s true. He could factor into the next four presidential contests as a candidate or potential candidate — but so could the men who are his current GOP competitors: Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, also 42; Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, 43; U.S. Rep. (and former vice presidential nominee) Paul Ryan, 44; and Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, 53.
For now, Jindal’s best shot at the White House appears to be on the coattails of a GOP presidential nominee as his or her vice presidential running mate. No one officially runs for vice president, of course. You have to start by running for president and distinguishing yourself without alienating the eventual nominee. That’s not easy for a guy whose stock in trade is bashing other politicians.
And that’s the easy part. If the nation (and the national media) ever takes a close look at Jindal, there’s liable to be plenty they won’t like. Here are five key reasons why Bobby Jindal will never, ever be president:
5. He’s from Louisiana — Duh! We Louisianans love our state, with all of its eccentricities, but the rest of the country thinks of us as America’s crazy aunt in the attic, someone fun to visit but not someone you’d put in charge of the household. Politically, we have burnished our reputation as a cauldron of corruption, a banana republic that somehow attained statehood while America wasn’t looking. That’s hardly the launching pad for a conservative, button-down GOP candidate for president.
In our nation’s 225-year history of electing presidents, only one had Louisiana ties. Zachary Taylor was born in Virginia and spent his youth in Kentucky before moving to Louisiana. A slave owner and Army general, he was elected president in 1848 because of his military success in the Mexican-American War. Interestingly, voters at the time knew next to nothing about Taylor’s political philosophy; he was a popular war hero, and that was enough.
Chances are voters in 2016 and beyond will know a lot about Bobby Jindal’s politics, but his bio will always begin with the fact that he comes from a state associated with voodoo, reality TV shows that sometimes require subtitles, Bourbon Street, rich food, philandering politicians and preachers, and other forms of weirdness.
Jindal’s own weirdness — participating in an exorcism while at college, delivering one of his children at home (it was an emergency, he says), defending Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson after Robertson’s homophobic and racially bigoted remarks to a national magazine, and his slavish suck-ups to the Religious Right — may make him popular among some on the GOP fringe, but it will be a huge turn-off to the nation’s moderate voters who typically cast the deciding ballots in close presidential contests.
No one knows that better than the guy (whoever he might be) who will be on top of the GOP ticket in 2016. After the Sarah Palin debacle of 2008, no Republican nominee is likely to roll the dice on a little-known “game changer” for veep — no matter how pithy his or her sound bites may be.
4. He doesn’t “look presidential.” Admittedly, this sounds like a really shallow observation, but let’s face it: American presidential elections are basically popularity contests that focus largely on charisma and good looks, with some emphasis on philosophy thrown in for good measure. If voters (including those in party primaries) really focused on qualifications and experience more than appearances and other superficial qualities, Barack Obama would never have beaten Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2008, and John McCain would have soundly defeated George W. Bush for the GOP nod in 2000. There are many other examples.
The importance of “looking presidential” infects both political parties, but let’s focus on the GOP, because that’s where Jindal has to compete. Consider the Republican presidential nominees of the past three decades:
• Mitt Romney had perfect hair and chiseled looks, but he also had a successful business career and governed Massachusetts.
• John McCain was a decorated Vietnam War Navy pilot with a knack for “straight talk” and swimming against the tide as a U.S. Senator.
• George W. Bush was the guy we all wanted to have a beer with, but he also had that Texas swagger and disarming charm. It helped that he was a business owner and Texas governor.
• Bob Dole was a decorated WWII soldier (Army) who spent decades shaping national policy as a leading U.S. senator.
• George H.W. Bush was a decorated WWII Navy fighter pilot who later went to Congress, led the CIA and served as vice president.
• Ronald Reagan literally had movie-star looks and served as California’s governor.
All of these guys looked like presidents even before they became president, or nominees for president. Jindal, on the other hand, looks like an extra on The Big Bang Theory. That may sound harsh, but presidential politics is not for sissies.
Nor, it seems, is it for geeks.
3. He’s too risk-averse to be a frontrunner, and the GOP loves frontrunners. If the definition of boldness is the willingness to risk one’s political capital to pursue the greater good, Bobby Jindal is the opposite of bold. Given the choice between risking his political capital and playing it safe, you can count on Jindal to play it safe every time.
The only time in his six-year-plus tenure as governor that anyone called one of Jindal’s initiatives “bold” was when he pushed a plan to replace Louisiana’s middling income tax with the highest combined state and local sales tax rates in the nation. The plan was hatched by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and endorsed by every conservative think tank in the land, which hardly qualifies it as “bold.” If anything, it was a typical Jindal ploy; it played to the bleachers of the GOP’s most conservative chorus.
Why is this important?
Because you don’t get to the front of the pack by playing it safe. To be a frontrunner, you have to distinguish yourself. You don’t have to commit political suicide, but cheerleading louder than everyone else won’t suffice. You have to swim against the tide sometimes — as a matter of principle, not political expediency. Jindal has never done that, and he’s not likely to start. He just doesn’t have it in him.
Consider the men who have captured the GOP presidential nomination in recent decades: Every one of them began the primary season as the frontrunner, and every one of them distinguished himself in some way that was not typically Republican.
Mitt Romney started the primary season as the front runner in 2012 after instituting an Obama-esque health care plan as governor or Massachusetts. John McCain often bucked the party line in the U.S. Senate. He began the 2008 primary season as the frontrunner, withstood attacks from several rivals, and held on to win the nomination.
Going back decades, GOP frontrunners — nominees all — set themselves apart: George W. Bush was a “compassionate conservative” who backed immigration reform; Bob Dole was a pragmatic compromiser who supported civil rights as a senator; and George H. W. Bush dismissed Ronald Reagan’s economic platform as “voodoo economics.” The GOP loves frontrunners, because they are bold. Underdogs, especially those who play it safe, get kicked to the curb.
That’s bad news for Bobby Jindal. He barely registers among GOP voters because he has done nothing to set himself apart from any other platitude-spouting wannabe. An April survey of GOP voters nationwide by McClatchy newspapers and the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion had Jindal tied for eighth place with just 4 percent of the vote. He just doesn’t inspire.
Perhaps Jindal is laying groundwork for a run in 2020 or later. At 42 (his birthday is June 10), he has time to grow as a candidate. That strategy worked for others. Ronald Reagan, for example, ran against frontrunners Richard Nixon in 1968 and Gerald Ford in 1976 before capturing the nomination and the presidency in 1980. George H. W. Bush ran against Reagan in 1980, then got picked as Reagan’s running mate and became The Gipper’s logical successor. Dole ran against Reagan in 1980 and against the elder Bush in 1988, then captured the nomination in 1996. McCain and Romney took similar paths to the nomination.
Considering Jindal will only be 45 in the summer of 2016, maybe he’s looking beyond 2016. A lot could change by 2020 or even 2024 (by which time Jindal will be 55). Then again, some things will never change — Jindal’s record as governor, the fact that he doesn’t have the gravitas of his current and potential GOP rivals, the fact that he’s from Louisiana — and the fact that he is loath to take risks that will place him even slightly outside the ultra-conservative stream.
Given all that, it’s hard to imagine the GOP presidential field ever being weak enough to let Bobby Jindal start out as the frontrunner — or wind up with the nomination.
2. He’s not even the choice of the GOP’s right wing. Okay, so Bobby Jindal doesn’t look like Ronald Reagan or run like George W. Bush, and he’s from a state most Americans consider a quirky outpost. He at least is the darling of the Religious Right and the tea party, right?
Jindal trails every other potential candidate that is courting the GOP’s ideologically conservative base. U.S. Sens. Rubio, Cruz and Paul, along with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, U.S. Rep. Ryan and Texas Gov. Rick Perry all finished ahead of Jindal in the 2014 CPAC straw poll. Jindal got just 2 percent of the CPAC vote after speaking to the group for 15 uninspiring minutes. That makes him a long shot even for vice president.
Admittedly, the CPAC poll hasn’t been a bellwether for future nominees. How about the Iowa caucuses, then? In that crucial first-in-the-nation caucus state, Jindal didn’t even register a blip on the radar screen in an April poll of likely GOP voters, despite his forays to the Hawkeye State in recent years. In that poll, three potential candidates formed a top tier: Huckabee with 20 percent; Ryan with 19 percent; and Jeb Bush with 18 percent. The second tier consisted of Rubio and Cruz at 9 percent, Paul at 8 percent, Christie at 7 percent and Walker at 6 percent. Trailing the pack was Joe Scarborough at 4 percent, which puts Jindal somewhere at the bottom of (or just below) the third tier.
Moreover, all of Jindal’s potential rivals for the GOP nomination not only have national audiences and national followings — both of which he lacks — but they also have more gravitas than he. Rubio, Cruz, Ryan and Paul are sought out by the media because each has expertise on specific national issues. Perry has a stronger record as governor, and Huckabee is the leading choice among conservative Christians. While Team Jindal paints our governor as a policy wonk, his rivals run circles around him when it comes to actually writing and implementing national policies. He talks the talk; they walk the walk.
Equally important, when the eventual nominee picks a running mate, any one of those rivals would bring a lot more to the ticket than Jindal. Rubio and Cruz come from states with lots of electoral votes, and both appeal to Hispanics — a demographic identified by virtually every GOP consultant as critical to the party’s future. Paul has inherited his father’s appeal to young people and broadened his own appeal as a pragmatist on major issues.
And if a candidate from the party’s right wing should happen to win the nomination in 2016, you can bet he won’t look to a less impressive knockoff when it’s time to pick a future veep. The bottom line for Jindal: The base from which he hopes to run for president already belongs to several others, and he has little chance of pushing any of them aside.
1. There has been no “Louisiana Miracle.” We began this countdown with Louisiana and we’ll end it there, because his record as governor is what Bobby Jindal must carry into the primaries. He knows that any candidate for president has to have a narrative. Jindal’s narrative will be — and try not to laugh as you read this — that he is the architect and builder of The Louisiana Miracle.
He’s already spinning that tale, and it’s alarming how many folks in the national media are buying it. Let’s face it, many in the media are either too lazy or too politically biased to fact-check political spin. Jindal knows this, which is why he picks his media audiences carefully — and almost never subjects himself to unscripted press conferences open to all Louisiana media.
If the national media ever look closely at Jindal’s record, particularly his claim that he has turned around Louisiana’s fortunes, his narrative won’t hold up.
For example, Louisiana still depends heavily on the federal government. Jindal runs against Washington and advocates smaller government, yet he consistently proposed state budgets consisting of more than 40 percent federal funds. According to veteran state government watchdog and blogger C.B. Forgotston, who once served on the staff of the state House Appropriations Committee, that 40 percent figure has been the norm for decades. For all his talk about “getting our fiscal house in order,” Jindal hasn’t made a dent in Louisiana’s dependency on federal largesse.
Moreover, Louisiana still ranks near the bottom of most of “the good lists” and at or near the top of “the bad lists.” This is particularly true of quality-of-life indices. Jindal loves to claim economic development victories, but those wins haven’t trickled down. In 2007, the year before Jindal took office as governor, Louisiana ranked 30th in per capita income. In 2012, the latest year for which U.S. Department of Commerce figures are available, we ranked 29th.
Then there are the quality-of-life metrics. Louisiana ranks 50th among the states in overall health, and we have some of the nation’s worst healthcare stats: the highest infant mortality rate; the highest diabetes-related death rate; the highest rate of death from breast cancer; and third-highest rate of cancer deaths overall; the 6th-highest rate of children born to teenage mothers; the 8th-highest rate of teen pregnancies; and the 2nd-highest rate of low- and very low-birthweight babies.
Considering that Bobby Jindal got his political start as a public healthcare guru — he led the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals at age 24 — he’ll have a tough time explaining Louisiana’s Third World healthcare outcomes after his eight years as governor. No doubt he’ll trumpet the fact that he slashed the state’s health budget (in truth, the feds slashed it by re-writing the Medicaid reimbursement formula on his watch) and dogmatically refused to accept the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare, but the fiscal sheen of his policy decisions pales in comparison to their human toll.
Jindal also touts his bona fides as an education reformer, but the truth is Louisiana’s boldest education reforms came under his predecessor, former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, she implemented the state takeover of New Orleans’ failing public schools and allowed the charter school movement to take hold. Jindal’s education reforms, while highly promoted, largely fizzled. Most either were struck down by the courts or failed to produce results as promised. And on one of his earliest initiatives — Common Core — he flip-flopped.
Here’s the truth about public education under Bobby Jindal: Louisiana has the nation’s fourth-highest high school dropout rate (5.7 percent), and our high school graduation rate ranks 45th in the nation.
On other fronts, the story is the same: Jindal ranks as the nation’s least transparent governor — a ranking that’s sure to haunt him among the national media — and his “gold standard” of ethics reform is a joke. He neutered the state Ethics Commission and carved out major disclosure exceptions for the executive branch.
Jindal’s biggest vulnerability, however, is his record on fiscal management. When he took office, the state had a surplus of at least $1 billion. Before he leaves office in 2016, Louisiana will have an ANNUAL budget hole of $2 billion or more — and that’s after he cut state support for higher education by 80 percent and consistently used one-time money to pay for recurring expenses.
All in all, Jindal’s only “miracle” is the fact that his voter disapproval ratings aren’t higher. A little over a year ago, President Obama had better numbers in Louisiana than he.
Now that's a miracle.
It will take an even bigger miracle for GOP voters ever to pick Bobby Jindal as their presidential nominee.