CHARLOTTE – The speech Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal gave Thursday to a gathering of Republican party leaders, released in advance by his office, was organized by Roman numerals. I. America is not Washington. II. How we win the argument. III. How we win the election. IV. Conclusion. Jindal's delivery resembled that of a nervous student rushing through an oral recitation of a term paper. The audience was as distracted as a room of high school classmates.
Which raises the question: Can a fast-talking, brainy policy wonk be elected president? Because even though Jindal told reporters after the speech that “any Republican who’s thinking of running for president needs to get his head examined,” it’s clear the governor has 2016 in his sights. He’s currently serving as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, a frequent launching pad to a national campaign, and on Thursday, Jindal pitched himself as the guy who can lead the GOP out of political exile.
“If this election taught us anything, it is that we will not win elections by simply pointing out the failures of the other side,” he said. “We have to recalibrate the compass of conservatism.” In a pointed jab at his party’s Congressional wing, he scoffed at their focus on decimal points and deficit spending in Washington, though didn’t propose an alternative for how to balance the budget.
“We seem to have an obsession with government bookkeeping,” he said. “This is a rigged game, and it is the wrong game for us to play…We as Republicans have to accept that government number crunching – even conservative government number crunching – is not the answer to our nation’s problems.”
Jindal is best known for his intellectual chops and zeal for public policy. The Ivy League graduate and Rhodes Scholar led Louisiana’s health care agency at 24 and became the youngest-ever president of the University of Louisiana System at 28. As governor he overhauled the public school system, and now he’s trying to eliminate the state income tax.
But unlike most of his potential rivals in 2016 – Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul – Jindal lacks that all-important quality on the national stage: charisma. His rushed speech Thursday featuring tirades against the liberal media and Washington served as a reminder that he has not lived down his widely ridiculed rebuttal to President Obama’s first State of the Union speech in 2009. And after Mitt Romney’s resounding failure to connect with voters on a gut level in 2012, the Republican Party might look for a stronger personality in 2016.
Jindal was most persuasive when he urged the party to reach out to a broader swath of voters. Hispanic, Asian-American and black voters overwhelmingly rejected Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who was viewed as out of touch with their concerns.
“We must reject the notion that demography is destiny, the pathetic and simplistic notion that skin pigmentation dictates voter behavior,” said Jindal, the son of Indian immigrants who went on to become governor of a conservative, Southern state. “The first step in getting the voters to like us is to demonstrate that we like them.”
For now, Republicans are taking him seriously.
“Republican governors are the bright spot in our party right now, and Gov. Jindal certainly ranks near the top of the list,” said Wayne King, vice chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party.
“Charisma comes in many different forms,” said Robin Hayes, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, who served with Jindal in Congress and called him “one of the smartest men I’ve ever seen.” Jindal’s approach, Hayes added, “is probably more difficult than what people are used to with sound bites, but given the chance to earn people’s respect, I don’t think it will take him long. I would define him as an accomplished leader, father, innovator and doer.”
Jindal is also a risk-taker. A staunch opponent of abortion, Jindal wrote a Wall Street Journal column last month calling for birth control to be sold over the counter. He made the novel argument that selling it over the counter would remove religious objections to requirements that employers or insurers to cover birth control, and it would preclude Democrats from using contraception as a wedge issue to get women votes.
Don’t mistake Jindal’s outreach as a signal he’s moving to the center on hot-button social issues. Based on his record in Louisiana, he’d be one of the leading social conservatives in the field. He signed a law requiring women seeking abortions to listen to the fetus heartbeat, campaigned against a state Supreme Court judge in Iowa who backed gay marriage, and most recently, panned President Obama’s gun control agenda. Still, he portrays himself as a pragmatist.
"We’ve got to stop being the stupid party,” he said. “It's time for a new Republican party that talks like adults. It's time for us to articulate our plans and visions for America in real terms. It’s no secret we had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. I’m here to say, ‘We’ve had enough of that.’ ”