As Gov. Bobby Jindal embarks on his barely veiled campaign to be the next great hope of the post-Romney national GOP, it's worth pausing to reflect on just how good he is at this sort of thing.
Even Jindal's critics sometimes underestimate his appeal beyond Louisiana, amid the day-to-day policy scuffles and political grudge matches in Baton Rouge, and against the backdrop of normal second-term fatigue, genuine fiscal alarm and a near-universal sense that his priorities lie beyond the state's borders. The truth is that Jindal, 41, has a proven talent for writing his own narrative, for positioning himself just where people seem to want him to be. Particularly when those people are still getting to know him, as the national press and American public now are.
It happened in each of Jindal's political campaigns, even his first run for governor nearly a decade ago, when the novice candidate finished first in the gubernatorial primary against a large field of seasoned politicians and gave one of them, Kathleen Blanco, a genuine scare in the runoff. It was a loss on paper, but still a moral victory for a skinny Indian-American Hindu-turned-Catholic Rhodes Scholar who turned out to have an instinct for politicking on multiple levels.
In conservative radio ads, he railed against cultural permissiveness. In editorial board interviews, he detailed wonkish, pragmatic approaches to economic development strategies and policy quandaries. Out on the trail, he glad-handed with the best of them. He may have faltered under Blanco's assertions that he was a cold-hearted cost-cutter — which no doubt created just enough voter discomfort for Blanco to win — but he emerged strong enough to brush aside the ambitions of then-state Rep. Steve Scalise and walk into a Republican Congressional seat based on his brand-new residence in Kenner, where he had never previously lived.
Four years later, he deftly exploited Blanco's handling of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, along with a general ideological shift to the right, and won easily on his second try for governor. This time, he not only finished first, but he also won outright in the primary against a crowded but relatively undistinguished field.
Jindal's knack for positioning himself in the right place at the right time, and coming off as just the right person, actually dates back much further, at least back to 1996, when Gov. Mike Foster plucked him from an out-of-town consulting gig and named him state Secretary of Health and Hospitals. (Jindal aggressively lobbied influential insiders like former U.S. Rep. Jim McCrery, R-Shreveport, for a recommendation, McCrery has said). At the time, he was all of 24. It was also evident last winter, when he campaigned in Iowa with Texas Governor Rick Perry and so outperformed the candidate that he wound up prompting chatter about his own future prospects in the nation's first caucus.
Now it's happening again — for the moment, anyway.
President Barack Obama's second-term victory was just days old when Jindal made his move. After spending much of the campaign's final weeks on the road as a swing-state surrogate for Mitt Romney, he turned on a dime and used a series of major national media interviews to lay into the nominee and his party, casting them as out of touch, wrongheaded and shallow.
You could call Jindal's post-election comments cynical — at least one unnamed Romney adviser did when he told the U.K. newspaper Daily Mail that Jindal had campaigned hard to be Romney's running mate before attempting to capitalize on his loss. "Real profiles in courage," the adviser sneered of Jindal and another accused turncoat, Newt Gingrich. But Jindal's comments also showed his savvy, his sense of timing and his instinct for saying what the moment seems to demand.
Jindal lambasted Romney's secretly taped comment writing off 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income tax for a variety of reasons as freeloaders. He declared Romney's subsequent message to donors that Obama had bought off key voting blocs with "gifts," such as low-interest student loans and health care reform, "completely unhelpful."
"If you want voters to like you," Jindal told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, "the first thing you've got to do is like them first."
Here in Louisiana, where Jindal's once-stratospheric popularity ratings have dipped to near 50 percent amid growing alarm over his administration's deep cuts to health care (including mental health), higher education, non-profit social service agencies and more, the governor's publicity blitz set more than a few heads shaking — particularly since none of the outlets he spoke to were local.
But few on the national scene seemed to notice, or care, about Jindal's Louisiana record. He gave his new audience what it clamored for.
There was much more. Jindal said the Republicans have got to "stop being the stupid party" and stop acting as though they just want to protect rich people. He argued that Romney focused too much on biography and not enough on substance, and he lambasted extreme comments made by losing Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana, notably Todd Akin's concept of "legitimate rape" and Richard Mourdock's notion that pregnancies resulting from rape are part of God's plan. "It is no secret we had a number of Republicans damage our brand this year with offensive, bizarre comments — enough of that," Jindal said.
Then there was the unspoken message embedded in Jindal's biography, notwithstanding his jibe that candidates need to offer more than just résumés. He may pointedly reject identity politics, but Jindal's very presence offers hope that the GOP may indeed expand beyond its lily-white base and prosper in an increasingly diverse America.
His prescription for how to do all of this? Well, Jindal may have earned mainstream points by sounding like a new breed of Republican, but beneath the tough talk, his message is that the party really doesn't need to change all that much to win.
Jindal's suggestion, it seems, is not to switch course but to simply soften tone and explain that "our policies benefit every American who wants to pursue the American dream. Period. No exceptions."
He advocates no real shift on immigration, or raising revenue. He may have called out Akin and Mourdock, who each lost very winnable Senate races, but he hasn't changed his blanket opposition to abortion in the case of rape. Although the U.S. Supreme Court's decision and the president's win guarantee that the Affordable Care Act — aka Obamacare — will remain the law of the land, he's doubled down on his resistance, declining to implement two major provisions at the state level.
Jindal and other Republicans argue that states make the best policy labs, yet his administration is refusing to set up its own insurance exchange to allow individuals to buy policies, with the help of subsidies in some cases, at a group rate. Instead, he's arguing that the law puts in place an overly regulated system that is "only masquerading as a free market idea," as his Health and Hospitals secretary Bruce Greenstein wrote to Obama's Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and he's punting responsibility for designing Louisiana's exchange to the feds.
Even more controversially, he's taking advantage of an out given to states by the recent Supreme Court decision upholding most of Obamacare by refusing to take federal money to expand Medicaid, leaving without insurance hundreds of thousands of Louisianans who would benefit from expanded coverage.
Jindal argues that the feds shouldn't be spending the money in the first place, and that Louisiana shouldn't have to cover the future 10-percent match, which the administration estimates at $3.7 billion over 10 years, once the federal subsidy expires.
Just last week, however, a report by the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured concluded that Louisiana's 10-year cost would be much lower — about $1.2 billion. Jindal responded through Greenstein by disputing the Kaiser Commission's "assumptions." Moreover, the new head of the LSU public hospital system, Dr. Frank Opelka, told The Times-Picayune it will be difficult for the state to maintain current levels of service without the Medicaid expansion — a notion Greenstein rejects.
This ideological, calculating, yet measured Bobby Jindal is the one that nation is only now getting to know. It's the Jindal folks in Baton Rouge have seen ever since he became governor in 2008.
In fact, it's easy to look at his track record and see a concerted, systematic effort to build a marketable profile that will simultaneously appeal to both national Republican voters and to the opinion leaders who help create the party's narrative.
The first-term checklist of priorities is long — and telling:
• Jindal pushed an ethics package that focused on additional financial reporting requirements, and if critics claim it did little to clean up Baton Rouge, it did raise Louisiana in national rankings.
• He used the BP disaster to cast himself as a vocal opponent to big government regulation of the energy industry.
• He made sure his name could never be attached to anything that could be construed as a tax increase, even if it meant fighting renewal of a piddly 4-cent cigarette tax, the extension of which voters overwhelmingly favored.
• He stayed just as pure on social issues, signing a bill that allowed the teaching of creationism in public schools and fighting the rights of gay couples who adopt in other states to obtain a Louisiana birth certificate listing both parents' names.
• He privatized large chunks of the Medicaid program.
After winning a reelection contest so foregone that he didn't even attract a legitimate Democratic challenger — and with the 2012 presidential contest looming and the vice presidential nomination and possible Cabinet appointments in play — Jindal embarked on his most ambitious, and flashiest, crusade yet. He proposed an all-out revamp of the traditional public school education structure, cloaked his proposals in you're-with-us-or-you're-against-the-children rhetoric, and made it clear he wanted his package adopted as written, not debated, dragged out and amended to the legislature's will.
He largely got his way, thanks in part to a heavy-handed strategy that made it difficult for dissenters to fully participate in rushed, marathon hearings. In the end, he wound up with a package very much in line with GOP priorities, but also popular with many reform-minded Democrats: More charter schools and educational choice for students, more evaluation-based accountability for teachers, and a virtual end to traditional tenure.
But Jindal also introduced divisiveness into the otherwise broadly popular initiative by throwing a big bone to core backers who favor privatization and taxpayer-funded religious education: He expanded taxpayer-funded choice not just to public schools but to private ones, and although he grounded his overall education rhetoric on strict measurement, opposed similar measures to hold private schools accountable.
The result has been a series of embarrassments, including the preliminary approval of some schools for voucher spots that clearly didn't have the facilities or qualified teachers to handle the new students. At the Legislature's insistence, state Education Superintendent and Jindal ally John White has now instituted an accountability protocol for voucher schools that addresses at least some of critics' concerns.
And for good measure, "tax reform" tops Jindal's agenda for the next legislative session, set to begin in April 2013. Details aren't clear, but the early signs point to an emphasis on reducing as-yet unidentified exemptions, adopting lower, flatter corporate and individual rates and remaining revenue neutral.
"He is trying to do a Louisiana version of what Mitt Romney talked about," said Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, a non-profit advocacy group that supports raising revenue to provide more services.
While Jindal's resume and rhetoric may appeal to like-minded people from a distance, up close, it's often been far from pretty.
The governor has drawn frequent charges of hypocrisy for, among other things: exempting his own office from tough public disclosure mandates; pushing a "transparency" bill that has allowed his office (and virtually the entire administration) to deny public records requests in record numbers; sharply criticizing the Obama stimulus plan even as he celebrated (and took credit for) the public projects it funded; and boasting of having signed the largest income tax decrease in state history — after having tried behind the scenes to derail it.
State lawmakers have largely supported Jindal's programs, and when they haven't, his anointed leaders have meted out retribution by revoking choice committee assignments.
The governor's struggles with the mostly conservative Louisiana House of Representatives are noteworthy, suggesting his vulnerable flank is not on the left but on the right. For example, Jindal needed Democratic House votes to pass this year's budget because GOP fiscal conservatives, egged on by rival Republicans such as U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Treasurer John Kennedy, refused to go along with the budget ploys that Jindal used to cover recurring expenses with one-time money. (Recently, a group of "fiscal hawks" led by River Ridge Republican Rep. Kirk Talbot asked Attorney General Buddy Caldwell to determine whether the budget is even constitutional.) Jindal argued that further cuts would devastate health care and higher education — something his situational allies on the left frequently accuse him of doing anyway.
Things have gone more smoothly in the state Senate, where Jindal-backed President John Alario, a former Democrat who has emerged as perhaps the governor's prime defender, held things together. Yet even Alario anticipates some tough times, specifically relating to Jindal's rejection of Medicaid funding — which comes on top of prior cuts in federal funding. Those prior cuts caused the administration to shutter Southeast Louisiana Hospital near the GOP stronghold of Mandeville, a move that drew sharp protest from some of his strongest allies.
"We've all been patient, letting the election go by. We understand the politics of it," Alario said. Now, though, he adds, "I think we want to have a frank discussion, why would we go one direction or another. We trust his knowledge on this. ... I think everyone wants to make sure there are services for people in need."
Things aren't likely to get any easier in 2013. The budget picture grows gloomier by the week, and potential successors to the term-limited Jindal — Vitter and Kennedy among them — are beginning to maneuver for position in advance of the 2015 statewide elections.
One thing that will be interesting to watch is what happens when Jindal's two worlds collide. Will his problems (and his record) in Baton Rouge pierce the national portrait that Jindal has so diligently painted? Will they even become part of the narrative?
Jindal has found himself an enviable perch, chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association (RGA), from which to stay in the spotlight. Yet how will he line up with the many fellow governors who share his ambitions? One potential rival, the much-higher-profile Chris Christie of New Jersey, is scheduled to take over the RGA chairmanship after his own re-election campaign next year.
How will the fact that Jindal hails from quirky, corruption-riddled Louisiana — despite his claims that he has cleaned things up — affect the nation's perception of him? And when (if?) his profile rises to a level that warrants a closer examination of his record as governor by the national media, will that record stand up to rigorous scrutiny?
Then there's the fundamental question of whether Jindal is even ready for prime time. He clearly wasn't the last time he tried to launch himself as a national opposition leader, when his response to Obama's first congressional address inspired mockery even among GOP-friendly pundits.
The biggest uncertainty, though, is whether Jindal can remain master of the moment in the long term. A lot can happen over the next few years. Times in Baton Rouge could get even tougher, the national mood on policies like Obamacare could soften, his party could reject his prescription to stay the course and start to rethink its platform, and world events can always cause seismic shifts in the political landscape.
For the foreseeable future, though, this much seems certain: When Bobby Jindal talks, people are going to be listening.