National Republican activists certainly have noticed that Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has stepped up his activity lately. A speech Thursday night in Mobile, Ala., showed that he has stepped up his game as well.
Gone are some of his lamer, more forced jokes and his occasionally poor pacing, both of which marred an otherwise decent speech two years ago in Mobile. Also long distant is the anomalous flop of his official Republican response to the 2009 State of the Union address.
In its place was . . . Well, let my wife tell it, because what really matters isn’t the impression of full-time political junkies like me, but of prototypical Republican primary voters instead — the small-business conservatives. It had been two years since she had heard Jindal speak in person. In 2012, she had found him earnest and likable but “waif-like” and at times awkward in delivery.
Thursday, though, she said: “He was really good. This guy really seemed like he had a presence. He had a good cadence. It didn’t seemed rehearsed, it sounded natural. I thought he showed a very red-blooded indignation about what’s going on in government, very genuine.” And, in her view, he seemed determined to fix it.
In style, that’s what struck me, too: Jindal now has a much more forceful mien, combined with the well-modulated passion of somebody who means business. He’s not just putting on a show. He also wove in plenty of wit — not canned jokes, but wry asides conversationally delivered.
Substantively, Jindal struck many of the requisite notes: America should not “outsource our foreign policy to Putin,” we shouldn’t let Obama “redefine the very meaning of the American dream” by promoting class envy and lowering expectations, and “America didn’t create religious liberty — religious liberty created America.”
But he focused most on his battle to completely reform Louisiana’s education system, in the face of lawsuits from lawless attorney general Eric Holder. Under Jindal’s leadership, the Bayou State has completely revamped tenure and hiring-and-firing practices while massively expanding the availability of, first, charter schools and, now, vouchers. In just a few short years, the number of students reading and doing math at grade level has doubled. Against such success and broadened opportunity for parents and children, Holder’s opposition is (in Jindal’s words) “cynical, immoral, and hypocritical.”
Not just in terms of educational choice, but on issue after issue nationwide, Jindal said, “I sense that there is a rebellion brewing . . . where people say we want our freedom back.”
Jindal obviously wants to play a big role in leading that effort. Hence, he recently has engaged in an absolute flurry of speaking appearances, newspaper and magazine columns, and aggressive seizures of the spotlight in venues all over the country, including NRO.
“We’ve got to win the war of ideas,” Jindal told me in an interview before his speech in Mobile for the Alabama Policy Institute. “We’ve got to be for something, as conservatives, not just against something. . . . I don’t think this country is center-left . . . but if all we are is the anti-Obama party, then I worry that we create a vacuum.” He continued:
The best parallel I can see is back in the ’90s, when Republican governors pioneered welfare reform, or back in the ’70s, when then–former governor Reagan championed supply-side economics, regulatory reform, reinvesting in the military, and winning the Cold War. . . . I think we are at the same point in time. Not that we need to cut and paste the policies of the ’70s or the ’90s and apply them today, but the country is at a tipping point, which is why we need to make the case for American exceptionalism, make the case for freedom. We’ve got to go make the case for a robust, growing, private-sector economy.
The night before seeing Jindal, I spoke to Reagan biographer and conservative-movement veteran Craig Shirley, who said that Jindal has great potential as a presidential contender, and that his chances of emerging from the pack are “better than most.” But he needs a “signature issue” that people can identify with him, Shirley thinks.
Jindal will eagerly talk your ear off about a host of issues — health care, education, energy, to start. Given that, I asked Jindal whether there were indeed a single issue that Republicans should push.
“The overarching issue is growth,” and Republicans “can’t just be the party of austerity but must focus on opportunity,” he says. “We could have a manufacturing renaissance if we had a rational energy policy. If we were building the Keystone pipeline, if we were doing more with exploration on federal lands and waters, if the EPA wasn’t over-regulating the economy, then we could have good manufacturing jobs coming back to our country. . . . If we let the debate be all about government, the other side automatically wins. The debate needs to be about the private-sector economy.” For Jindal, the key question is, “How do we get back to robust growth?”