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Saturday, June 21, 2008

How Bobby's Wheels Came Off

Posted By on Sat, Jun 21, 2008 at 8:14 PM

Yeah, I know the legislative pay raises have been beaten to death, but I just had to say one more thing about how Jindal mishandled the whole thing, because it says something about the bigger picture of how he deals (or fails to deal effectively) with the Legislature.

The jam he’s in right now was completely and utterly avoidable — if he only understood legislative politics, which is another way of saying, “if he only knew how to be a governor.”

Lots of people have been impressed by Jindal’s IQ and resume, but as we all know by now, there are lots of different ways to be intelligent — and unintelligent. Over the past 35 years, I’ve encountered a ton of politicians who didn’t qualify for MENSA but who clearly understood and mastered the nuances of Louisiana politics. And then there were those (Edwin Edwards, e.g.) who were smart in LOTS of ways.

Speaking of EWE, he comes to mind in regards to the Jindal-lege pay raise flap because he’s the perfect example of a guy who knew how to be governor the day he took his first oath of office. On the other end of the political spectrum, Mike Foster was another example, although he didn’t have quite the political skill set that EWE had (who does?). It’s probably no coincidence that both Edwards and Foster spent time in the Louisiana Senate before becoming governor.

Which brings us back to Jindal. He has been roundly criticized for being too detached from the legislative process, too “above it all.” Legislators, particularly when they’re in session, are kinda like Labrador retrievers. If you’re into the breed, you know that they can be lovable and rambunctious all at once, but no matter what, they require lots of attention. They demand it. Edwards and, to a lesser extent, Foster, understood that very well.

By way of “attention,” I don’t necessarily mean stroking. Sometimes they do need that, of course, but other times they need to get their asses kicked, or invited over for lunch, or just noticed — as when a governor will show up in committee to testify for or against a particular bill. Above all, they should never be ignored.

It’s not always obvious which approach is best at a particular time, except to someone as politically nuanced as, say, EWE. In Jindal’s case, he appears to be as clueless about legislative politics — and the delicate balance that’s required toward leges by a savvy governor — as Mayor Ray Nagin is to politics in general. (To Nagin’s credit, he has gotten better in the last year or so. He now makes regular trips to Baton Rouge to huddle with the N.O. delegation, and it has made a big difference in his relationships with some leges and in the success rate of the city’s agenda.)

Jindal appears to have adopted a “Potomac” approach to the governor’s office, in more ways than one. When he travels, for example, he goes with a HUGE motorcade of cops — almost as if, well, the vice president or even POTUS were being transported. And this was BEFORE Rush Limbaugh started hawking Jindal for Veep. It started the day after he took office, in fact. Another, more detrimental, example is Jindal’s approach to the Legislature. He treats his interactions with lawmakers as if he were the president rewarding his congressional allies by having them over to the Big House for a photo op and coffee, inviting them over in batches of six or ten or even 15 — and doing most if not all of the talking.

By contrast, EWE would have no more than six leges at a time, so that he could spend time talking with — and listening to — each one, making each lege feel special in the same way that Bill Clinton is said to make you feel as though you is the only person in the room when he talks to you. It’s the kind of thing we were supposed to learn as young adults (if not sooner) — being good listeners, validating others’ opinions, putting others first. In politics, with all its egos, people who take that approach tend to go far.

Another thing EWE would do is call individual lawmakers at their desks during session (or at their offices between sessions) and ask them their opinion about something — something that he may or may not really need their advice about — which always made them feel important.

Of course, Edwards was not shy about lashing out at leges who crossed him, either. He could turn leges around quickly by threatening to withhold capital outlay funds or other goodies — and he always knew where and how to apply pressure. In many ways, he was Machiavelli’s poster boy — loved and feared all at once.

Most of all, Edwards was engaged in the process. He loved it. He ate, slept and breathed it.

Jindal, by contrast, seems to regard leges and the legislative process as a necessary evil, a pain in the ass, even.

Fast-forward to the lege pay raise debacle, and let’s contrast how EWE (heck, even The Governess) would have handled it with how Jindal handled it.

Edwards would have counseled with the Senate president and the House Speaker — probably no one else would have been invited to the sit-down — and warned them that the public would absolutely not stand for it. (He would have foreseen the uproar just around the corner.) He would have told them to take the raise in small increments, maybe every other year. OR, he would have offered to float a trial balloon for them by publicly calling for a raise for them — in exchange, of course, for a lot more in return. Either way, he would have sensed an opportunity to help them get the raise or keep them from stepping in sh*t, and he would have played it to his advantage. Most of all, he would have had the eyeball-to-eyeball conversation with the legislative leadership HIMSELF. He would never have sent an underling, not even one skilled at dealing with leges, to deliver a message this important.

This is not rocket science, but it IS political science. Heck, even Kathleen Blanco knew how to do this — as she did the last time leges tried to give themselves a raise.

Jindal, on the other hand, followed the form he has adopted since taking office: he dispatched Chief of Staff Timmy Teepell (or, alternatively, Teepell arrogated this responsibility to himself — both scenarios fit their individual styles) to stare down House Speaker Jim Tucker. That was like sending Pee Wee Herman into the ring against Mike Tyson.

Regardless of whether you like or dislike Tucker’s politics, you can’t say he doesn’t understand the game. When Teepell threatened a veto, Tucker trumped him by threatening to bottle up the remainder of Jindal’s agenda.

And Teepell blinked.

Which underscores why only a governor — that is, a governor who knows how to be governor — should have such a conversation in the first place. For starters, a House Speaker (or Senate President) can always trump a chief of staff. They can’t always stare down a governor who knows how (and is willing) to wield his or her power. When dealing with powerful leges on an issue that means a lot to them personally, you don’t send a boy to do a man’s job. Second, Teepell obviously didn’t know how far or how hard to could push back. Had he known, he could have — indeed, he should have, if he knew what he was doing — called Tucker’s bluff. The public would have sided with Jindal, of course. Instead, Teepell backed down and slinked back up to the Fourth Floor.

Now Jindal has all the heat focused on him. His talking-point response to voters’ and reporters’ questions and complaints only underscores how badly he has mishandled this from the get-go. Instead of looking like the smart kid, he looks like a buffoon, repeating his talking points no matter what the question.

Worse yet for Jindal, he has now been exposed as a weakling. Teepell more so.

Which brings us to my final point about how much the wheels have come off Jindal’s wagon: once leges smell weakness, they often morph from labs into wolves.

I’m not saying all is lost for Jindal in his dealing with leges in the next three-plus years. However, if he wants to recover, he’s going to have to change his approach. He’s going to have to get personally engaged in the process. If he doesn’t, he’ll have one helluva time putting the wheels back on.


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