Magazine | December 3, 2012, Issue

What Would Jindal Do?

Bobby Jindal, Republican governor of Louisiana (Patrick Semansky/AP)
Louisiana’s governor can be a guide on health care and education.

On Tuesday, November 13, just one week after a dispiriting presidential election for the GOP, reporter Jonathan Martin of Politico published an interview with Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana. Having spent most of his career in public life as a wunderkind, Jindal now finds himself an elder statesman among Republican elected officials. Shortly after his first gubernatorial victory in 2007, he was taken seriously as a potential vice-presidential nominee. And though Mitt Romney eventually chose Paul Ryan as his running mate, Jindal was seen by many on the right as a candidate who could give the former Massachusetts governor a boost among committed conservatives. Despite having been overlooked not once but twice, Jindal is seen as a likely 2016 presidential contender, which is why his interview with Martin was so interesting and telling.

Jindal, who gives few interviews to reporters not based in Louisiana, was very frank with the D.C.-based Martin, telling him that “we cannot be, we must not be, the party that simply protects the rich so they get to keep their toys.” More broadly, he insisted that “we need to stop being simplistic, we need to trust the intelligence of the American people, and we need to stop insulting the intelligence of the voters.” Jindal warned against defining the GOP against President Obama, and he expressed the importance of framing a positive agenda. Yet Jindal shied away from making explicit policy pledges — he chose not to wade deeply into the immigration-reform debate, and avoided specifics when he talked about tax reform, school choice, energy policy, and creating a “bottom-up government for the digital age.” To Martin, Jindal’s most noteworthy policy suggestion was that Republicans should embrace financial reform.

So what should we make of Jindal’s remarks? Are they an indication that one of the brightest lights of the conservative movement has embraced moderation? Or is Jindal merely calling for cosmetic changes to the case that conservative Republicans make? When Jindal says that “we’re a populist party and we’ve got to make that clear going forward,” one could be forgiven for thinking that he sees a need not for fundamental change but simply for a clearer message.

Another interpretation, and a more plausible one, is that Jindal recognizes that the debate over where Republicans should go next has focused too narrowly on immigration and abortion. As Ramesh Ponnuru observes elsewhere in this issue, many on the right have reacted to President Obama’s success among Hispanic voters by calling for comprehensive immigration reform. In a similar vein, moderates and a not-inconsiderable number of conservatives have pointed to the Republican platform’s embrace of the Human Life Amendment as a political liability to be jettisoned posthaste. What these interpretations miss, however, is that Hispanics and unmarried women, the constituencies critics often have in mind when they call for a shift to the left on immigration and abortion, tend to be anxious about their prospects for upward mobility.

Jindal, in contrast, maintained that the Republican party should keep its pro-life stance while softening its tone. Moreover, his caution on immigration reform suggests that he continues to be somewhat skeptical of a comprehensive approach that includes a sweeping amnesty for unauthorized immigrants. Instead, he seems to want to move the conversation about Republican reinvention to the issues most relevant to middle-income households of all ethnic backgrounds, including access to high-quality education, a fairer tax code, and preventing yet another financial crisis.

For a number of reasons, Jindal is well placed to make this argument. As a committed social conservative, he does not need to demonstrate his anti-abortion bona fides by employing strident language. Indeed, his devotion to the pro-life cause might give him greater moral authority when criticizing candidates who employ polarizing rhetoric on the issue.

And Jindal has been one of the more creative Republican governors on critical policy questions such as health-care reform. As executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, he was one of the architects of the premium-support model for Medicare reform that Paul Ryan advocated. Jindal served as head of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals and as a senior official in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services while still in his 20s. As governor, he has sought to overhaul the state’s approach to providing medical care to the poor, focusing primarily on reforming Louisiana’s extensive but antiquated network of publicly operated charity hospitals to improve the cost-effectiveness and the quality of care.

#page#But creativity is a double-edged sword. By choosing to tackle Medicaid reform head-on, Jindal has made many enemies. His push to shift Medicaid from being a fee-for-service program to being a more integrated model of care delivery has been met with fierce resistance. Now that federal support for Louisiana’s Medicaid program is expected to decline sharply, Jindal has been forced to take drastic steps to contain spending. He is also on the front lines of the debate over President Obama’s health-care law, having explicitly rejected federal funds for a large expansion of Medicaid eligibility planned for 2014. The debate over health-care reform in Louisiana is fraught with danger for Jindal, yet his long experience uniquely qualifies him for it. His handling of the next few months will have a great impact on his ability to shape the national health-care-reform conversation and, by extension, his political prospects.

Jindal has also overseen a dramatic overhaul of education policy in Louisiana, in partnership with John White, Louisiana’s state superintendent of education. One of White’s most promising initiatives is course-level instructional choice, a concept that aims to introduce the principle of choice within existing public schools. Having previously served as superintendent of New Orleans’s innovative Recovery School District, the nation’s first district to consist primarily of charter schools, White recognizes the power of school choice — yet his approach also recognizes its limitations.

Essentially, school choice as it is commonly understood depends on the emergence of leaders who can build entirely new schools. This is possible in dense urban areas with a large supply of talented teachers and administrators, but far less so in rural areas or urban areas suffering from a dearth of talent. Course-level instructional choice effectively shrinks the unit that needs to be developed from an entire school to something as simple as a class. Rather than ask parents and students to leap from one school to another, this approach gives them a choice between, say, a Spanish class taught by a local teacher and a Mandarin class taught online. The chief virtue of course-level instructional choice is that it allows students to benefit from the many other institutions — colleges and universities, private firms, the military — that can provide developmental experiences as valuable as those offered by K–12 schools. The most successful providers of instruction can scale up by offering their courses across a wide array of existing schools, and not just by building new schools from scratch.

There is much more that Jindal will have to do before he can become the GOP’s champion of the middle class. Most important, he needs to think deeply about how conservatives can address wage stagnation and the widening opportunity gap between those who are raised in stable two-parent households and those who are not. But his opening salvo is encouraging, and one hopes that other conservatives will follow his lead.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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