Is Bobby Jindal’s reputation for intelligence anything other than ethnic stereotyping?” That was the question asked last week on Twitter by Slate columnist Matt Yglesias, regarding the subcontinental governor of Louisiana. Yglesias’s tweet turned out to be more damaging to the reputation of Yglesias, a Harvard alum, than of Jindal, who turned Harvard down to attend Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.
But Bobby Jindal — the brainiest Republican of our time — has a few things to answer for. In the span of seven months he has lurched from lambasting the GOP as the “stupid party” to declaring that whiny Republicans should “stop the bedwetting.” The “overall level of panic and apology from the operative class in our party,” he went on, “is absurd and unmerited.” Jindal’s own bedwetting and his criticism of the same when done by others both missed the mark. And Jindal will have a tough time leading the GOP to a better place if he doesn’t first understand what’s wrong with it today.
“It’s no secret we had a number of Republicans damage our brand this year with offensive, bizarre comments,” Jindal told Politico in mid-November. “Enough of that.” True enough. But it’s a leap to argue that because Todd Akin is stupid, the entire party is. Plenty of non-stupid Republicans, who are concerned with the state of the party, found Jindal’s hectoring offputting.
The rest of Jindal’s post-election prescription was eminently sensible. He argued that Republicans should “fight for every single vote,” including the votes of those who don’t pay federal income taxes. The GOP can’t be content “simply being the anti-Obama party,” and we must “make sure that we are not the party of big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes, big anything.” All true.
But the reason Republicans don’t “fight for every single vote” today has little to do with stupidity, or with a fetish for large institutions. It instead has to do with the fact that the Republican core is neither culturally nor economically representative of America as a whole.
Take health care. Relative to Democratic voters, Republican voters are more likely to be employed or retired. That is to say, most Republican voters have high-quality health insurance, coverage that is heavily subsidized by the government through the tax code (employer-sponsored insurance, $300 billion a year) or the Social Security Act (Medicare, $700 billion a year). Hence Republican voters are more likely to be pleased with their current coverage, less likely to find problems with our health-care status quo, and more likely to oppose change, even change in a free-market direction.
The contentment of this constituency is a big part of the reason why Republican politicians have rarely made health care a high priority, and why Democrats have largely had the issue to themselves over the last 50 years. It’s not a matter of stupidity, but a matter of incentives. Republican voters — and thus Republican politicians — have had little interest in agitating for reform. Obamacare is understandably deeply unpopular among Republican voters, but if we’re honest, we have to admit that calls to “repeal and replace” often go heavy on the repeal and light on the replace.
Similarly, the concentration of Republican voters in rural regions of the country means that the party is somewhat tone-deaf to the concerns of urban and suburban voters. Some conservatives imply that this is a good thing — that America’s rural values are superior to those of the decadent city slickers. But no region has a monopoly on virtue, and a Republican party that is regional rather than national — that cannot speak to metropolitan voters — will not be effective in supporting rural communities either.
On all these points, Bobby Jindal could be a breath of fresh air. He’s a wonk’s wonk. He ran the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals at the age of 24. He was the top staffer on the Breaux-Thomas bipartisan Medicare-reform commission at 27. At 28, he became the youngest-ever president of the University of Louisiana system. He has been working to reform government-run health care for nearly his entire adult life.
And his personal story — son of Indian immigrants, Ivy-educated Rhodes Scholar — could resonate in the urban and suburban communities where immigrants and college-educated voters mostly reside.
Strangely, however, that isn’t the path Jindal has taken. Instead, he seems to feel the need to atone for his virtues, by arguing that conservative reformers are “jilted” Washingtonian “navel gazers” who aren’t “fighting for our principles.”
But this is a false dichotomy. Just because you live in a city, or because you want Republicans to appeal to a broader electorate, doesn’t mean you oppose conservative principles.
It’s almost as if Jindal thinks conservatives resent nerds. But nerds are in. The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom about four geeks and a cute girl, is one of TV’s most popular shows. Movies about dot-com entrepreneurs have won Oscars. Jindal’s nerdiness is his greatest source of appeal.
It also gives him his opportunity for leadership. Jindal knows the issues backwards and forwards; he can articulate better than anyone else the opportunity for Republicans to recast their message around less-costly health care, better schools, and banking reform.
Politicians are at their best when they’re being themselves, when they’re comfortable in their own skin. “Let Reagan be Reagan,” they used to say in Sacramento. Jindal needs not merely to accept the fact that he’s a big nerd, but to embrace it. If he wants to repeat vintage applause lines from the 1992 GOP convention, that’s fine, but he’ll have plenty of competition. Bobby Jindal could be — and is — a different kind of conservative. It’s up to Jindal to see that in himself.