Bobby Jindal’s Clickbait Campaign

Policy dissertations haven’t gotten him any 2016 traction, so he’s turning to pop-culture references — and trying to piggyback off the Donald Trump media machine.

SQUIRREL!
National Journal
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Aug. 14, 2015, 1 a.m.

Don­ald Trump. Martha Stew­art. “Pris­on time” for Hil­lary Clin­ton. Or­ange Is the New Black. In the past week on the cam­paign trail, Bobby Jin­dal has men­tioned them all.

Jin­dal has been the Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor of Louisi­ana since 2007. He’s a former Rhodes Schol­ar who au­thored a dense, nearly 200-page thes­is on health policy and Judeo-Chris­ti­an val­ues. And he’s the per­son who in 2013 called on Re­pub­lic­ans to “stop be­ing the stu­pid party.”

But right now, he’s a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate who’s polling at around 1 per­cent. So as he fights for at­ten­tion in a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial field that’s 17 mem­bers strong, he’s do­ing whatever he can to grab some sun­light — in­clud­ing giv­ing red meat to the party’s base and mak­ing for­ays in­to pop cul­ture.

And while cam­paign gim­micks and his­tri­on­ics are far from unique in this pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, or any oth­er, what sets Jin­dal’s ap­proach apart is the trans­par­ency and self-aware­ness with which he’s de­ploy­ing it.

“I real­ize that the best way to make news is to men­tion Don­ald Trump,” Jin­dal quipped Monday in an Iowa speech, ac­cord­ing to pre­pared re­marks that his cam­paign sent to re­port­ers. “That’s the gold stand­ard for mak­ing news these days. So, I’ve de­cided to ran­domly put his name in­to my re­marks at vari­ous points, thereby en­sur­ing that the news me­dia will cov­er what I have to say.”

The gold stand­ard was met. The cov­er­age was en­sured. And Jin­dal got a burst of stor­ies with his name in the head­lines. (Nearly all of them had “Trump” in the head­line as well.)

When the en­tire GOP field took their shots at Hil­lary Clin­ton over her private email-serv­er scan­dal, Jin­dal went all in. Not­ing Clin­ton’s state­ment to a fed­er­al judge that she had provided all her work-re­lated email to the State De­part­ment, Jin­dal called the Demo­crat­ic fa­vor­ite “one email away from pris­on time.”

The he brought Martha Stew­art, who once served five months in pris­on for ly­ing to in­vest­ig­at­ors about a stock trans­ac­tion, in­to the equa­tion. “Maybe her friend Martha Stew­art can stop giv­ing her in­teri­or-dec­or­at­ing ad­vice and give her jail­house-sur­viv­al tips in­stead. Or­ange really will be the new black,” he said Tues­day, ref­er­en­cing the Net­flix series about wo­men in pris­on.

Jin­dal’s cam­paign de­fen­ded his tac­tics. “Do you prefer bor­ing? We don’t use the talk­ing points oth­ers use. Amer­ic­ans want straight talk,” Shan­non Dir­mann, his press sec­ret­ary, said in an email ex­change. “The gov­ernor is hav­ing fun on the trail in Iowa; the voters are en­joy­ing it. And truth is stranger than fic­tion. … Simply telling the truth about Hil­lary Clin­ton is ex­plos­ive.”

Not every­one, however, is con­fid­ent it will get res­ults: “Clev­er sound bites do not get you to the White House,” said Re­pub­lic­an strategist John Fee­hery, who is not af­fil­i­ated with any of the GOP cam­paigns. “That is no sub­sti­tute for a real strategy.”

But what else is Jin­dal to do? Jin­dal doesn’t have a $100 mil­lion su­per PAC like Jeb Bush. He doesn’t have the name re­cog­ni­tion and full-on Iowa in­fra­struc­ture of Scott Walk­er. And he didn’t even get to par­ti­cip­ate in the prime-time de­bate, where can­did­ates such as John Kasich and Marco Ru­bio got to ad­dress an audi­ence of mil­lions without spend­ing a dime.

Fur­ther, it’s not as if Jin­dal has es­chewed his wonk­ish roots. He came to Wash­ing­ton this Feb­ru­ary hop­ing to make a splash with a na­tion­al plan for edu­ca­tion policy, and his web­site has lengthy ex­plan­a­tions of his policy plans on en­ergy, health care, edu­ca­tion, and de­fense. None of that, however, has res­cued him from the back of the pack.

Jin­dal has plenty of com­pany in his pre­dic­a­ment, and his fel­low mem­bers of the pelo­ton are also hop­ing for vir­al hits that will vault them in­to the top tier. Rick Perry is beef­ing with Trump like they’re on rival mu­sic la­bels, Lind­sey Gra­ham put his cell phone in a blender, Mike Hucka­bee used a Holo­caust com­par­is­on to de­scribe Pres­id­ent Obama’s Ir­an nuc­le­ar-arms policy, and Rand Paul took a chain­saw to the tax code.

In oth­er elec­tions, long-shot can­did­ates like Jin­dal have made the leap with stunts, hy­per­bole, and cre­at­ive mes­saging that catches fire with the pub­lic and gen­er­ates me­dia buzz — scor­ing the can­did­ate the type of vis­ib­il­ity that would oth­er­wise cost a for­tune in ad­vert­ising. That’s how, dur­ing the 2012 pres­id­en­tial race, Her­man Cain rode his “9-9-9” tax pro­pos­al to a brief mo­ment of glory, and it’s how Michele Bach­mann revved up the party base enough to win the Iowa straw poll.

But in 2016, however, the hy­per­bole and me­dia hype is be­ing hoovered up by Don­ald Trump, a celebrity can­did­ate with noth­ing to lose and a near preter­nat­ur­al abil­ity to keep his name in the news. And so Jin­dal is do­ing whatever he can to get some shine on his sap­ling cam­paign — and hop­ing that soon­er or later, Trump will stop blot­ting out the sun.

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