Jindal to GOP: No Apologies, No Surrender

The Democratic response, of course, didn't address the distinction Jindal was making in his hope that the president fails in his attempt to enact policies that the GOP believes are ruinous:

"We understand that Gov. Jindal has had some problems with public speaking lately, but turning to Rush Limbaugh to be your new speechwriter doesn't help,'' DNC spokesman Hari Sevugan said today. "Rather than rooting for failure, we urge the Republican Party to play a constructive role in moving the country forward and offer a budget proposal.''

Many Republicans had been walking on eggshells on this issue and Jindal's ringing defense was sorely needed. It was also a tactically smart move because while he never mentioned Rush Limbaugh by name, he ingratiated himself with the party's base by becoming one of the few prominent Republicans to endorse in unequivocal terms the talk show host's desire for the president to "fail." He did this while also saying he believes the Democrats are sincere in their belief that their plans are good for the country. "Sincerely wrong," as Jindal put it, but some of the sting was taken out of his critique by acknowledging the opposition's desire to help the country.

Jindal also carefully outlined what he thinks is a winning agenda for Republicans. This agenda includes an expansive view of health care reform, a comprehensive energy policy with offshore drilling, the building of new nuclear power plants in addition to seeking renewable sources, a push for school choice ("Democrats haven't had a new idea in education since the invention of the chalkboard"), and a strict ethics code for Congress that includes earmark reform.

All in all, a much more relaxed and interesting Jindal than the stiff, mannequin-like figure who appeared on TV to respond to Obama's State of the Union speech. This was an approachable Jindal, a passionate Jindal, a man who appeared comfortable in his own skin and surefooted in his critique of the administration and in laying out policies to follow.

There is no doubt that his is one of the most compelling personal stories in American political history. But he needs more than a personal narrative if he expects to be successful as a presidential candidate. For one thing, despite the improvement, he is still not a good enough public speaker to even be considered presidential material. His delivery is choppy, and there is no cadence, no rhythm, no highs and lows, no inspiration. In short, he is going to have to get a lot more experience before non-Republicans will take him seriously as a presidential candidate.

Public speaking can be learned. What can't be taught are political instincts. Jindal scores a lot better in this category as he has demonstrated a political acumen that will definitely make him a player in the 2012 race if he chooses to run. Not only did he rightly sense the need to indirectly defend Limbaugh, but the single most important decision he has made since becoming governor was probably turning down part of the $2.4 billion in stimulus money due Louisiana. It was a brave decision not to accept $98 million to extend unemployment benefits, but his rationale was rock solid:

"The federal money in this bill will run out in less than three years for this benefit and our businesses would then be stuck paying the bill,” Jindal said. "We cannot grow government in an unsustainable way.”

There are several "catches" in the stimulus bill that would trap states into taking on obligations that they would be responsible for meeting once federal money dries up. And as a political move, it is unlikely that any Republican governor with designs on 2012 will get very far unless they have refused at least part of the monies due their states from the stimulus bill.

Jindal has also emerged as a major GOP spokesperson for health care reform. As a 25-year-old, he served as secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, where he turned a $400 million deficit into a $200 million surplus. He also sat on a commission looking into Medicare reform and became assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for Planning and Evaluation under George Bush in 2003. He appears to favor a combination of jigging the tax code and government intervention, which may cause him problems with some conservatives. He receives high marks for his health care proscriptions, even from liberals. Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center says Jindal's plans "are the only constructive thing Republicans are doing on health care anywhere."

But will this quiet, wonkish, converted Catholic make a grab for the brass ring in 2012? He will be 40-years-old when the primaries get underway and he suffers from a lack of national name recognition (unlike Sarah Palin), no national organization (unlike two likely rivals Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee), and the prickly issue of a re-election race for governor in 2011. He can't wait to see if President Obama will be particularly vulnerable due to a poor economy, since it is unlikely he will run for both governor and president. This means he will need to already start his 2012 presidential campaign if he wishes to realistically compete with the Romney money machine, the nationwide Huckabee organization of Christian conservatives, and Sarah Palin's ability to rouse the base and capture attention wherever she goes.

If his NRCC speech was any indication, Jindal is keeping his options open at this point. While presenting himself as a leader of the party by speaking to the concerns of the moment and laying out an ambitious agenda for the future, Jindal has positioned himself nicely to run for president or back off and try for re-election as governor. Either way, he is emerging as an important voice in the party and, given his youth, will almost certainly remain so far into the future.