Over the weekend, a couple of pieces by our friend Quin Hillyer – one of which was his weekend Advocate column and another, a much longer piece in National Review – discussed at length the presidential prospects of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal as he works to spin up a 2016 run.
Jindal, to date, hasn’t been able to make himself into a top-tier presidential candidate – but it’s not for a lack of trying. Nationally, he’s still remembered for a lousy 2009 televised speech given in response to President Obama’s initial address to Congress, and, Louisiana being something of a media backwater, it’s been difficult for Jindal to earn the kind of exposure necessary to put him on the same level as a Rick Perry or Jeb Bush or Chris Christie.
So in the absence of the ability to hit home runs based on his state’s population or proximity to the media capitals of New York, Washington, Chicago or Los Angeles, Jindal has had to peck away at whatever opportunities he’s had in order to get attention. One such opportunity was a speech in Mobile, where Hillyer makes his abode, at which he was on top of his game.
A speech by Gov. Bobby Jindal in Mobile, Ala., Thursday night showed why some national conservative audiences are fitting him for a presidential mantle.
The Mobile speech, sponsored by the Alabama Policy Institute, was just one of a flurry of Jindal out-of-state appearances and column submissions obviously intended to raise his national profile even as his home-state popularity noticeably lags.
Louisiana readers know the litany of complaints: Jindal is too ambitious. He’s too inaccessible. His administration is high-handed. But that’s not what Republicans nationally see. And it might be that the rest of America sees in Jindal something Louisianians, too, should value.
Quin goes through a litany of Jindal’s achievements in his Advocate column, and correctly states the case for his economic record as a strong one. Louisiana’s 4.9 percent unemployment rate isn’t some statistical blip, and the fact that Standard & Poor’s has given Louisiana’s credit rating a consistent increase in esteem throughout Jindal’s tenure might be a surprise to many of his critics (though he probably should share credit with state treasurer John Kennedy on that score). That Louisiana’s economy has grown at a 50 percent faster pace than the national economy is less salutary toward Jindal’s record than President Obama’s, but succeeding despite the headwinds of Obama’s regulatory orgy and his other deleterious policies is no mean feat.
Hillyer’s National Review piece features quotes from yours truly, as well as radio host and sometime Hayride contributor Jeff Crouere, in attempting to explain how the governor could be a viable presidential candidate despite a soft approval number in his home state. I’m less sanguine than Quin is about Jindal as a presidential candidate because I don’t think he’s a good enough retail politician to survive in the primary grind, and last week when he interviewed me I gave lots of examples from his tenure here in Louisiana where somebody a little better at the politics (rather than the policy) would be further along.
Conservative Louisiana blogger Scott McKay, as insightful a source as I’ve found in years of covering politics, observes that such criticisms have some merit. But they sometimes miss the bigger picture, he adds, which is more about Jindal’s outreach to the media and the public: “Jindal hasn’t been particularly accessible to the media. And he doesn’t helicopter to places just for the optics. Jindal will sit in a policy meeting for hours on end, but he just doesn’t want to go on that helicopter. In Louisiana that hurts you, because this is a very folksy state.”
I should probably add a caveat here – in the interview, I mentioned helicopters as a tool for a governor to do a sound bite somewhere, like lots of other politicians will do. But Jindal isn’t exactly a stranger to helicopters – a few years ago the Baton Rouge Advocate attempted to make a grand expose’ over Jindal’s use of helicopters to give speeches around the state, particularly in places it takes a long time to get to by car. That’s not exactly the same thing as what we were talking about in the interview – a friend of mine with relatively intimate exposure to both tells a joke about Mike Huckabee’s penchant for using the Arkansas state helicopter to drop in everytime a gas main blew up in that state, while Jindal was, for example, two months tardy in showing up to grimace at the site of that sinkhole in Assumption Parish.
One thing I’ve noticed in examining many of the embarrassing fools touting Edwin Edwards’ candidacy for Congress is how many of them base their loyalty on Edwards’ “personal touch.” In many cases those people were let in on Edwards’ graft machine, and it was free swag from state government which bought their friendship. But often it wasn’t even graft that got them on his side; sometimes it was the fact that when they asked him for things he managed to grant their wishes.
Jindal has very little of that. And that’s actually a feature rather than a bug. Crooked politicians who expand the size and scope of government will always find allies among the people for whose benefit they abuse their power, but politicians who attempt to rein in government are in a position to tell people “no” rather than “yes.” And Jindal has been in the business of “no” for most of his term as governor beyond the first couple of years he was in office; that leaves a lot more disappointed people than it does lifelong friends. Still, you run across shockingly few people after six years with Jindal in office who have “Bobby Jindal did X to help me out” stories. And in a state where having a friendly politician on speed dial who can get you anything from a fixed traffic ticket to a sweetheart contract for your brother-in-law has been part of the culture for the better part of a century, there’s a natural disadvantage for somebody who tries to operate more by the book.
But there are other elements, as we discussed in the interview last week…
Jindal has been doing a lot of things that are transformational, but he has done a very poor job at communicating the value of his transformational stuff, in terms of explaining it to the vast middle of the public, the people who don’t have a vested interest in what he’s doing.
Example — this is really revolutionary, and decades from now we’re going to thank him — he broke up the Charity Hospital system. We were the only state in the nation that had a network of ten hospitals that the state ran. They served mostly Medicare or Medicaid or otherwise indigent patients, because nobody with private insurance would go — unless you got shot in New Orleans, because nobody knew better than Charity how to treat gunshot wounds. Jindal contracted them out to private-sector entities, which is brilliant.
The problem is that he did it completely on the basis that we have to have a mid-year budget cut. He didn’t sell the change to the public or run it by the legislature. He did it by a kind of executive decree. Now, in Louisiana, the governor has that power, so it’s not like Obama where he did anything wrong. But when some vested interests lose money and jobs, and you haven’t even asked otherwise-friendly legislators to join you in the decision, you find yourself without any allies. He saved hundreds of millions of dollars in brick-and-mortar costs and probably will end up improving the quality of care, so it is publicly salable. But he didn’t even really try. So the only message that gets out is “Jindal shut down the Charity Hospitals, and he’s screwing the poor.” Now that’s a lie, but you know the saying about the lie getting all the way around the world before the truth puts his pants on. Well, when you don’t even try, the lie goes around the world three times. And the same thing has happened in a number of cases, including with his school vouchers.
That’s me talking, which our readers would probably recognize from stuff we’ve had here at the Hayride.
Subsequent to the interview, I had occasion to talk about the issue of Jindal’s popularity slide with a former high-ranking member of his staff – and the thinking on Charity Hospital was that there would have been no way possible to get the leasing of those hospitals through the legislature. No political support whatsoever for such a move, I was told – and I assume that wasn’t just opinion but something informed by discussions with legislators. If that’s true, then maybe I’m being too hard on Jindal’s political skills.
That same Jindal veteran suggested that his slide in the polls came largely out of “too much too soon” between education reform, attempts at pension reform and the Charity Hospitals move all coming in basically the same 12-month period. If that’s true, then there’s a decent chance Jindal’s approval ratings could recover when folks realize nobody’s medical care is negatively affected by private management of the local Charity Hospital, or that the state’s educational reforms are panning out into better results (and they are, at least from the standpoint of gradually improving test scores and better high school graduation rates). But pension reform didn’t succeed at the legislature in any significant sense and Jindal’s efforts to eliminate Louisiana’s income tax last year were a shambles – and those could be elements restricting his recovery.
Either way, it’s a real question whether Jindal, as he ramps up his efforts to build national support for a presidential run, cares much about how he’s perceived back home. It’s unquestionable that if he were wildly popular here in Louisiana it would help him run in 2016, but does that merit foregoing more speeches in places like Mobile, Des Moines, Charleston and Orlando?
The guess here is probably not. Jindal’s popularity will probably rise as the state’s economy continues to improve, but a local charm offensive would be a surprise to us. Hillyer is probably going to do Jindal more good than Jindal will.