Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal stood before 1,200 of the well-heeled GOP faithful at a Tuesday night fundraiser and declared:
The time of introspection and navel gazing is officially over. We need to stop worrying about the past, about fixing the Republican Party and worry more about fixing our country and helping to chart our country’s future.
Bold words from a young man who may be attempting to grasp the fallen GOP standard and rally the party under his banner for 2010 and beyond.
His speech, given at a National Republican Campaign Committee event, served two purposes. First, he was attempting to rehabilitate himself following his poorly received response to President Obama’s State of the Union message. To that end, Jindal joked that given President Obama’s policy against torture, “it is now illegal to show my speech to prisoners at Gitmo.” The crowd tittered but there were few laughs. The fact is, even his supporters felt Jindal could have done a lot better in his prime-time debut, and many more thought his appearance was a disaster. The episode appeared to be too fresh in many people’s minds for them to respond to the kind of self-deprecating humor attempted by the Louisiana governor.
No matter. People will eventually forget that speech as most forgot Bill Clinton’s debut at the 1988 Democratic Convention, where, as keynote speaker, he droned on and on until many in the audience were calling on him to quit the stage.
What ever happened to him?
But the primary goal of Jindal’s appearance was to put himself in a strong position should he choose to run for president in 2012. To that end, he gave the Republicans exactly what they needed: a coherent, positive agenda to promote and, more importantly, a reason to be proud of their opposition to the president’s spending and tax plans.
The Democrats had been making much political hay from the idea that the GOP was hoping the president would “fail,” advancing the notion that Republican opposition to Obama meant that they wanted people to suffer and the American economy to go into a meltdown. Jindal rightly dismissed this meme as a “gotcha game,” while unapologetically declaring that opposing the president and the Democrats was the right thing to do:
“The right question to ask is not if we want the president to fail or succeed, but whether we want America to succeed. Make no mistake: Anything other than an immediate and compliant, ‘Why no sir, I don’t want the president to fail,’ is treated as some sort of act of treason, civil disobedience or political obstructionism,” Jindal said at a political fundraiser attended by 1,200 people. “This is political correctness run amok.”
Since conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said that he hoped that Obama would fail, Republicans have been pressed by Democrats and the media about Limbaugh’s comments.
Jindal, a potential 2012 presidential candidate, told the Republican audience he would “not be brow beaten on this, and I will not kowtow to their correctness.”
“My answer to the question is very simple: ‘Do you want the president to fail?’ It depends on what he is trying to do.”
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.