The Bobby Jindal Contradiction

The Louisiana governor is one of the most accomplished candidates in the Republican field. But as a presidential candidate, he’s been shamelessly pandering to the base.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks during the 2014 Republican Leadership Conference on May 29, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana.   
National Journal
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Josh Kraushaar
Feb. 10, 2015, 3 p.m.

Louisi­ana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal came to Wash­ing­ton this week to make his case for edu­ca­tion re­form. It was part of his bid to burn­ish his cre­den­tials as the “ideas can­did­ate” as he mulls over a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. His pro­pos­al shared many sim­il­ar­it­ies with Jeb Bush’s edu­ca­tion­al re­forms, but the gov­ernor chose to fo­cus on their one big dis­agree­ment — over the Com­mon Core edu­ca­tion­al stand­ards.

Jin­dal’s de­tailed plan sym­bol­ized bet­ter than any­thing why his un­der­dog pres­id­en­tial cam­paign is so com­plic­ated. He’s try­ing to win over both the party’s es­tab­lish­ment wing and its grass­roots base, even though they’re at odds with each oth­er over many fun­da­ment­al is­sues. As Jin­dal mulls over a na­tion­al race, his ad­visers have urged him to play up his ap­peal to “Bubba” voters — white, work­ing-class, mostly evan­gel­ic­al Amer­ic­ans. He re­cently head­lined an all-day evan­gel­ic­al pray­er rally, and even made a sum­mer cameo on the hit show Duck Dyn­asty as part of that out­reach. But in do­ing so, Jin­dal is down­play­ing his own blue-chip bio­graphy as a Rhodes schol­ar wun­der­kind who ran the Louisi­ana health sys­tem at age 24 and first ran for gov­ernor at 32.

Jin­dal’s risk is that, by try­ing to ap­peal to every­one, he’ll be left out of the mix en­tirely. He’s run­ning as a re­form-ori­ented con­ser­vat­ive in a field that’s likely to in­clude Jeb Bush, Marco Ru­bio, and Scott Walk­er — all of whom have laid claim to that mantle. Yet there’s not much space left to com­pete for evan­gel­ic­al sup­port, with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former Arkan­sas Gov. Mike Hucka­bee and former Sen. Rick San­tor­um of Pennsylvania already en­ga­ging in out­reach to those com­munit­ies.

So where does that leave Jin­dal? He makes the case that he’s one of the few deeply con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans run­ning for pres­id­ent who also knows what he’s talk­ing about. To pol­ish his im­age as the lead­ing policy thinker in the field, the Louisi­ana gov­ernor has re­leased de­tailed pa­pers on for­eign policy, en­ergy, health care, and edu­ca­tion, as part of the work of his policy non­profit, Amer­ica Next. Jin­dal rel­ishes de­liv­er­ing pro­voc­at­ive con­ser­vat­ive ar­gu­ments — call­ing for Obama­care’s re­peal, warn­ing against Muslim “no-go zones” in Europe, sup­port­ing cut­ting back the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment — and then sur­pris­ing his crit­ics with a wonky, in­tel­lec­tu­al case back­ing up his views.

“There is a tend­ency among the Left and some Re­pub­lic­ans that say you can either be con­ser­vat­ive or smart. And I think that’s in­sult­ing and not true. I’m mak­ing the case that we can be both,” Jin­dal said in an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al. “Folks that dis­agree with con­ser­vat­ive ideas should re­sort to de­bat­ing the ideas in­stead of name-call­ing.”

Jin­dal told Na­tion­al Journ­al that if he runs for pres­id­ent, his cam­paign would cen­ter on telling hard truths. But, in real­ity, Jin­dal has avoided many of the tough polit­ic­al choices in fa­vor of what’s in his short-term polit­ic­al in­terest. On edu­ca­tion, he’s em­braced nu­mer­ous state-level meas­ures aimed at in­creas­ing ac­count­ab­il­ity and choice — but, giv­en that he’s call­ing for no fed­er­al in­volve­ment in edu­ca­tion, he would be ut­terly power­less as pres­id­ent to im­ple­ment those re­forms. On for­eign policy, he sharply cri­ti­cized Pres­id­ent Obama’s hand­ling of ter­ror­ism but said he’d prefer to see oth­er op­tions to tackle IS­IS’s gains “short of send­ing ground troops.” Back home, Louisi­ana’s debt has grown, caus­ing Jin­dal to cut some state ser­vices, but the gov­ernor has avoided tax hikes to close the budget de­fi­cit, and he op­poses ex­pand­ing Medi­caid to make up some of the dif­fer­ence.

Even many con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans who once coun­ted them­selves as Jin­dal fans are start­ing to cry foul. In an Amer­ic­an Con­ser­vat­ive piece head­lined “How Bobby Jin­dal Wrecked Louisi­ana,” con­ser­vat­ive writer Rod Dre­her wrote, “if Bobby Jin­dal’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paign goes any­where, it will not be be­cause of his re­cord gov­ern­ing Louisi­ana, but in spite of it.” The column was not­able be­cause the same au­thor was one of Jin­dal’s biggest cham­pi­ons when he was first elec­ted, say­ing he was con­fid­ent that Jin­dal was “go­ing to write the next great Louisi­ana story.” Con­ser­vat­ive colum­nist Ramesh Pon­nuru cri­ti­cized Jin­dal’s health care plan on Bloomberg, writ­ing, “The great flaw in Jin­dal’s plan is that it would cause mil­lions to lose cov­er­age.” Most sig­ni­fic­antly: GOP Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter of Louisi­ana, who’s look­ing to suc­ceed Jin­dal as gov­ernor, told The New York Times that the state’s fisc­al policy was “broken” and said he didn’t agree with Jin­dal’s “gen­er­al ap­proach.”

Jin­dal dis­missed the cri­ti­cism as the product of bold lead­er­ship, and said that Vit­ter is hold­ing a grudge be­cause Jin­dal didn’t en­dorse his Sen­ate cam­paign.

“It’s easy to be pop­u­lar as a politi­cian — kiss ba­bies, don’t do any­thing con­tro­ver­sial. I was elec­ted to make the big changes in Louisi­ana. I got elec­ted after [Hur­ricane] Kat­rina, when our eco­nomy was stag­nant, people were leav­ing the state. There was edu­ca­tion­al in­equal­ity. We did make big changes. And we up­set folks in the status quo. As a res­ult, we have the strongest private-sec­tor eco­nomy in a gen­er­a­tion,” Jin­dal said. “If I were to run na­tion­ally, voters want lead­ers who tell them the hard truths, make the tough de­cisions. They’re not look­ing for someone who wants to be gov­ernor or pres­id­ent. There are plenty of politi­cians who just want the of­fice, want the trap­pings.”

But it’s clear that the gov­ernor is very cog­niz­ant of the polit­ic­al real­it­ies of run­ning for high­er of­fice — and the fre­quent con­tra­dic­tions in try­ing to com­bine good polit­ics with good policy. Dur­ing the course of our 35-minute in­ter­view, Jin­dal ru­min­ated about how im­port­ant it is to be likable as a politi­cian, be­fore quickly sound­ing dis­missive of pop­u­lar politi­cians “who kiss ba­bies” but don’t take on big chal­lenges. He joked about how much he en­joyed par­ti­cip­at­ing in the Louisi­ana Shrimp and Pet­ro­leum Fest­iv­al, an an­nu­al statewide tra­di­tion where can­did­ates spend hours on a barge schmooz­ing with voters on the Cajun Coast. He then quickly segued in­to how he set a dif­fer­ent tone as gov­ernor from many of his col­or­ful pre­de­cessors, ref­er­en­cing his first-term pledge to be the “most bor­ing and ef­fect­ive gov­ernor in our state’s his­tory.” (“We took our kids to Dis­ney World after the elec­tion. Ed­win [Ed­wards], when he won, went to Monte Carlo,” Jin­dal joked.)

“In cam­paigns, can­did­ates’ per­son­al­it­ies will come out for bet­ter or worse. Voters will see that. Likab­il­ity is more im­port­ant than a lot of con­sult­ants like to think in a cam­paign,” Jin­dal said. “I’m not say­ing that voters will vote for the most col­or­ful or en­ter­tain­ing can­did­ate, but, at some level, they’ve got to know you un­der­stand them, like them, re­spect them. So my philo­sophy and plat­forms are all about trust­ing people.”

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