Politics & Policy

Jindal Declares War on the Wonks

The Louisiana governor throws down the gauntlet on “Democrat-lite” alternatives to Obamacare.

Bobby Jindal on Monday took a swing at members of his own party. But while the rest of the GOP’s potential presidential candidates are duking it out amongst themselves, Jindal took aim at some of the party’s brainiacs, the ones who have worked hardest since 2010 to propose viable alternatives to the president’s Affordable Care Act.

In a piece for Politico, Jindal branded some of these conservative wonks “cheap Democrats” because the alternatives they have put forward would still, like Obamacare, offer tax credits for the purchase of health insurance. (Many conservatives, including the Manhattan Institute’s Avik Roy and Yuval Levin of National Affairs, have said repealing Obamacare without a replacement law providing similar levels of coverage could cause too much disruption.) Then he sent a letter to every member of Congress urging them to “reject plans that copy Obamacare and raise taxes.” The letter was accompanied by a petition and video message from the governor.

One can almost hear an echo of Ted Cruz rallying the troops to battle. The Texas senator and another tea-party favorite, Kentucky senator Rand Paul, have used a similar trope, rousing audiences by invoking Reagan’s 1975 message to the Young Americans for Freedom: You can’t try to broaden the party’s base by blurring the image, by making it indistinguishable from the other party. Reagan urged them to “paint in bold colors” rather than “pale pastels.” What Cruz and Paul have not done is duke it out with the party’s leading intellectual lights.

Jindal’s denunciation of “Democrat-lite” plans will be popular among the conservative grass roots and relates directly to his political ambitions. Jindal and his political advisers believe that health care will be a major issue in the 2016 Republican-primary debates, as it was in nearly every House and Senate primary in the 2014 election cycle. And who is better equipped to throw down in that debate than the man who at age 24 took over Louisiana’s charity-hospital system and turned a $400 million deficit into a surplus of $220 million . . . while slashing 1,000 employees?

As Jindal and his team see it, he is the leading health-care expert in America even if he hasn’t been playing that role in recent years. That means that not only can Jindal outdo his potential rivals for the Republican nomination on the debate stage, but he can outdo conservative wonks when it comes to proposing an Obamacare replacement. And that’s what Jindal did last April, when his nonprofit group, America Next, produced a competing plan to overhaul American health care.

The Jindal plan would do away with Obamacare root and branch, but it was roundly criticized by Republican health-care policy experts. When Jindal sat down with a group of them after its release, tensions mounted. One GOP policy expert told me at the time that he and others felt Jindal’s plan “involved too much disruption to be plausible” and would be “politically explosive.” They felt the plan was “designed for the Republican primary season, but not for the larger health-care debate.”

Jindal is anticipating the same sort of blowback from his Republican-primary opponents. After all, if those policy experts are not advising him, they will surely be advising one of his opponents. Jindal’s aide says the Politico piece was an attempt to “get out in front” of the issue and to “bring a behind-the-scenes fight into the open.”

Republican policy experts are making a “political calculus” that the repeal of Obamacare is untenable, the adviser says. “Jindal says, ‘Bull***t.’” As evidence, he cites an August 2014 poll conducted by Jindal’s political-consulting firm, On Message Inc., for America Next, the think tank Jindal that established last year, showing that a majority of Americans — 55 percent — wants an Obamacare replacement that repeals all of the plan’s taxes and does not replace them with other taxes. It does not specify what the replacement would be. 

As Jindal ramps up the ideological battle, he is also getting ready to get into the war for campaign cash, renaming his political-action committee (what was once Stand Up to Washington will become Believe Again) and reinvigorating his efforts to woo donors. The race for the party’s establishment donors is well underway, but Jindal’s team believes he can successfully court the many energy executives who call Louisiana home.

The policy-oriented warfare Jindal began over the weekend will animate his candidacy as he seeks to become a force that his competitors — and the party’s intellectual establishment — have to reckon with if they are to beat him. In the meantime, by laying out specific policy proposals on an array of issues, he is becoming one of the intellectual forces of the party in his own right.

Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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