The Corner

Politics & Policy

Bobby Jindal for HHS

Steve Berman at The Resurgent makes the case for former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to replace Tom Price as Secretary of Health and Human Services:

From the pure wonk perspective, Jindal is the best qualified person to run HHS, to craft health care policy, to shepherd legislation through Congress, and to speak intelligently on the topic without igniting a firestorm. Put more succinctly, Jindal will not become a bigger story than Trump, and can hand Trump a win.

The problems with Verma, Shulkin, and Gottlieb is that they are all bureaucrats. They’ve never run or won an election. They work with Congress from an administrative point of view. That’s the same problem Trump will have with Dan Wright, who’s now the acting HHS secretary.

Trump needs an experienced politician to make good on his promises. He can’t do it himself, and the generals with whom he’s surrounded himself are as lost as sheep outside the pen dealing with health care issues. Congress has made a festering mess out of the whole process, and cannot be trusted to do anything in the next three years.

Anyone associated with Congress falls into the same trap.

 A good deal of Berman’s argument is process of elimination and analysis of the factional dynamics, and I’m not as quick to write off some of the other possible candidates (although Seema Verma’s involvement with Mike Pence’s Medicaid expansion in Indiana is cause for skepticism, and the only reason why Obama holdover David Shulkin is in the Cabinet in the first place is his background inside the VA). Nor is it clear who is actually under consideration; one assumes that Verma’s background with Pence gives her a leg up, while some press reports have suggested that Trump could go with an outside-the-box, no-government-experience pick like celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz.  But for Trump, Jindal would be an excellent choice. What’s more questionable is whether joining Team Trump at this point would be a good idea or something Jindal is interested in doing.

HHS oversees by far the largest budget of any Cabinet-level department, although 52% of its $1.1 trillion budget is devoted to Medicare and 36% to Medicaid, and the department’s 63,000 employees are far fewer employees than, say, Defense or Homeland Security. The real power in HHS right now is its ability to promulgate regulations, but it is also potentially a source for developing and pushing legislative reforms – a function at which Price, despite his background on Capitol Hill, failed badly. Jindal has the chops to handle that: he previously worked inside HHS, was an effective Congressman in his short tenure on the Hill, won a lot of legislative battles in Baton Rouge, and was really the only 2016 Republican contender with a reasonably detailed health care proposal (which he unveiled back in the spring of 2014). 

Jindal has a great depth of background in both health care policy and administration: he developed the Medicare premium-support plan that would later end up in the Ryan budget when he was a 22-year-old Congressional intern, and was running and rescuing Louisiana’s hospital system when he was 24. As I argued in his favor as a presidential contender, Jindal has the skillset that Trump lacks to do some actual swamp-draining: he knows the federal and state legislative and executive branches well enough from the inside to know where the traps are and how to exercise power without being eaten alive by the career staff. Democrats would no doubt resurrect the budget controversies that dragged down his once sky-high popularity in Louisiana, but Jindal has a good story to tell about his fiscal stewardship. It would be a positive for Trump to hire someone smart and experienced – especially someone who was quite critical of Trump during the primaries.

Whether this would be a wise move for Jindal is another matter. He’s been in government almost his whole life since returning from his Rhodes Scholarship in Oxford, and recently joined a private equity firm to finally make the kind of money that an honest man can’t make as a public servant. In the meantime, he’s kept a relatively low profile, which presumably gives him more time with his three school-age children. He’s always expressed a preference for living in Louisiana rather than D.C. 

Politically, his presidential campaign sputtered, and his approval ratings are low enough in Louisiana at present that it will be a long time before he could consider running for statewide office again, but if he wants to stage a political comeback at some point (at 46, he’s young enough to wait a while), his best bet may be to stay offstage and remain outside the blast radius of the Trump Administration and the increasingly-unpopular and dysfunctional Republican Congress. Jindal for now can appeal to both the pro- and anti-Trump GOP factions, noting for those who will want a break from Trump after he’s gone that Jindal loudly opposed him in the primary (and got out of the way of those trying to stop him, leaving early and endorsing Rubio), and for those who value loyalty to Trump that Jindal did endorse him over Hillary. But distance from Trump dissolves once you join his Cabinet. Democrats are also looking for a scalp right now and smell blood over health care, so there’s no guarantee that whoever Trump sends up to the Hill first could even get confirmed. And as a matter of political reality, whatever gets done on health care over the next few years is likely to be far removed from Jindal’s own preferences and proposals.

The HHS appointment is an important one, and assuming he actually settles on a candidate soon (we’re still waiting for a Homeland Security nominee) will tell us a good deal about what Trump thinks the direction of his team should be over the next 12 months. Jindal would be a good pick for Trump – but maybe not the best pick for Jindal. 

Dan McLaughlin — Dan McLaughlin is an attorney practicing securities and commercial litigation in New York City, and a contributing columnist at National Review Online.

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