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The "New" Bobby Jindal 

Stephanie Grace on the Louisiana governor's current reinvention -- and how it tracks with his past

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click to enlarge Jindal was only 24 when former Gov. Mike Foster made him state secretary of health & hospitals. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Jindal was only 24 when former Gov. Mike Foster made him state secretary of health & hospitals.

  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.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

  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.

click to enlarge Jindal and his wife Supriya on inauguration day in Baton Rouge. he became the youngest Governor in the nation. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Jindal and his wife Supriya on inauguration day in Baton Rouge. he became the youngest Governor in the nation.

  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.

click to enlarge cover_story-7.jpg

  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.

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