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.
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?”
Amid all of Jindal’s education reforms and vaunted (and sometimes over-vaunted) ethics reforms in Louisiana, what people can lose sight of is that he has focused much of his attention on economic growth. Year after year he has successfully pushed various tax cuts, including income taxes, sales taxes on natural gas, corporate-franchise taxes, and some capital-gains taxes. Combined with industrial recruitment and regulatory reform, these policies certainly have had the desired effect: The unemployment rate in Louisiana has been below the national average every month of Jindal’s tenure, and now, after the fourth-best improvement in the nation since 2008, it stands at an impressively low 4.9 percent. The state’s GDP has grown more than 50 percent faster than has the rest of the nation’s. Multiple business-related magazines rate Louisiana among their top six states for business climate and the potential for economic growth. The state’s credit rating has been upgraded six times since Jindal took office, and Standard & Poor’s has awarded it the highest possible score for Financial Management.
That’s impressive stuff.
But here’s where an anomaly creeps in — and Jindal’s record isn’t complete without noting it. Whereas in most states a governor’s popularity closely tracks the state’s economy, Jindal’s popularity has markedly dropped since his overwhelming reelection in 2011. For a full year now, polls from just about all sources have shown Jindal’s approval rating as below 50 percent, with some Democratic polls, perhaps dubiously, showing him as low as 35. It’s obvious that some “Jindal fatigue” has set in.
The question is, Why?
Part of it probably stems from a notable insularity within his administration. For years now, I’ve heard from multiple sources that Jindal and his team don’t return calls, not only from rent-seekers but also from longtime allies who phone to offer feedback, suggestions, or intelligence. Part of the fatigue might come from a certain high-handedness: Critics say his team plays political hardball even when it’s unnecessary. And the mystery of the low poll numbers might also be explained by accurate accusations (such as from conservative chronic malcontent C. B. Forgotston, whose knowledge of state government is vast and whose scruples are entirely admirable) that Jindal’s team has raided various state trust funds, fudged a few budget numbers, and claimed too much credit for ethics reforms that, while positive, contained at least one troubling loophole.
But others, defenders as well as critics, say Jindal’s problem is style more than substance, attitude rather than any ineptitude.
Conservative radio host Jeff Crouere, executive director of the state Republican party from 1997 to 1999, and a man whose style is more thoughtful than bombastic, said he has been turned off by Jindal’s manifest ambition. “I enthusiastically supported him for governor in 2003,” Crouere said, speaking of the race that Jindal narrowly lost. “I was enthralled with his intellect, his ideas. And I was a big booster when he ran for Congress [in 2004, when Jindal won].” Crouere continues:
But then from Day One he started running for governor, rather than embracing his job in Congress. He never really spent much time in his [southern Louisiana] district, but was always in northern Louisiana instead. It’s the same thing now, when as governor he has spent his whole time running for president. When you’re paying someone’s salary, you expect him to do the job you are paying him to do. He is not really focused on our state. I am used to seeing a governor at state fairs and events. Governor Jindal is away. He’s not at state fairs and festivals. . . . He’s not part of the fabric of Louisiana.
Crouere’s comments track those I’ve heard for years now.
Conservative Louisiana blogger Scott McKay, as insightful a source as I’ve found in years of covering politics, observes that such criticisms have some merit. But they sometimes miss the bigger picture, he adds, which is more about Jindal’s outreach to the media and the public: “Jindal hasn’t been particularly accessible to the media. And he doesn’t helicopter to places just for the optics. Jindal will sit in a policy meeting for hours on end, but he just doesn’t want to go on that helicopter. In Louisiana that hurts you, because this is a very folksy state.”
Moreover, says McKay, Jindal’s messaging has at times been lousy:
Jindal has been doing a lot of things that are transformational, but he has done a very poor job at communicating the value of his transformational stuff, in terms of explaining it to the vast middle of the public, the people who don’t have a vested interest in what he’s doing. Example — this is really revolutionary, and decades from now we’re going to thank him — he broke up the Charity Hospital system. We were the only state in the nation that had a network of ten hospitals that the state ran. They served mostly Medicare or Medicaid or otherwise indigent patients, because nobody with private insurance would go — unless you got shot in New Orleans, because nobody knew better than Charity how to treat gunshot wounds. Jindal contracted them out to private-sector entities, which is brilliant. The problem is that he did it completely on the basis that we have to have a mid-year budget cut. He didn’t sell the change to the public or run it by the legislature. He did it by a kind of executive decree. Now, in Louisiana, the governor has that power, so it’s not like Obama where he did anything wrong. But when some vested interests lose money and jobs, and you haven’t even asked otherwise-friendly legislators to join you in the decision, you find yourself without any allies. He saved hundreds of millions of dollars in brick-and-mortar costs and probably will end up improving the quality of care, so it is publicly salable. But he didn’t even really try. So the only message that gets out is “Jindal shut down the Charity Hospitals, and he’s screwing the poor.” Now that’s a lie, but you know the saying about the lie getting all the way around the world before the truth puts his pants on. Well, when you don’t even try, the lie goes around the world three times. And the same thing has happened in a number of cases, including with his school vouchers.
Thursday night in Mobile, Jindal did not bristle at all when asked about his low poll numbers of late. “Look, too many politicians want to be a celebrity or put their fingers in the air to figure out which way the wind is blowing,” he replied, pleasantly. “That’s not what we’ve done. It’s easy to go cut ribbons and not do anything hard or controversial.”
On the other hand, he rejected the notion that he hasn’t been accessible, claiming that he has visited each of the state’s 64 parishes (Louisiana’s name for counties) in each of his past five years as governor — the first governor, he said, ever to do so.
Meanwhile, the one thing even most critics acknowledge is that when decisive action is required, under pressure, Jindal delivers. As a congressman, his handling of Hurricane Katrina earned rave reviews even as other Louisiana politicians, such as then-governor Kathleen Blanco, spectacularly failed. He also won plaudits as governor for his responses to Hurricanes Gustav and Isaac and to the BP oil spill.
“He does a great job during emergencies,” said the otherwise critical Crouere. “I’ll give him credit for that. And I’ll give him credit that he is not a tax-and-spend liberal. But the little improvements in taxes, for instance, that he made are certainly nothing like what needs to be done. . . . He has not been corrupt, like Edwin Edwards.” (Edwards served eight years in prison for racketeering.) “He has not been Kathleen Blanco–like incompetent. But with somebody like Bobby Jindal, who is so impressive — if he were out there cheerleading the state, he could have done so much more.”
From afar, though, one wonders what else a governor could do in six years, in addition to thoroughly revamping and improving the state’s health system, its education system, and its economic performance, all while effectively managing a series of natural and man-made catastrophes.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, told me last week that Jindal’s “accomplishments are legion.”
“Jindal is one of just six people who obviously have a place on the [Republican presidential] stage if he wants it,” Norquist continued. “Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, Ron Paul, and Jindal are the guys who can’t be denied access to the stage. Every one of them has a narrative that says they’ve done good things, they’ve governed well, they’ve got significant experience, and they can take a punch; they don’t have glass jaws. . . . With Jindal, it helps that his expertise is in health care, so he can explain how we can do better than Obamacare.”
Obviously, Jindal is interested in the presidency, and he’s working hard to bolster his national reputation.
“Whether or not Bobby Jindal can mount a major candidacy for the Republican nomination in 2016 is unclear,” said Morton Blackwell, a Louisiana native who is serving his seventh term as Virginia’s Republican national committeeman. “It’s high time for Republicans, for a change, to nominate someone credible as a Reaganite. Bobby Jindal is one of those who would fill that bill.”
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.