Ordinarily, this space covers a governor’s state of the state speech at the beginning of an annual legislative regular session. But Gov. Bobby Jindal has shown he’s unwilling to put much into a legislative agenda for this year’s edition, largely mooting the point of this tradition and making for a lot of legislative idle hands in the devil’s workshop that invites putting him into a delicate political position.
By temperament, unlike some past governors, Jindal is not one who lives to tell the Legislature what to do, preferring to lead parsimoniously. But he found out early in his gubernatorial career that deferring on giving these guys and gals directives and thus leaving them to their own devices can cause him political headaches. In his first session, in 2008, Jindal let a tax cut gain momentum that, seeing national fiscal hard times looming and the impending election of a president who would use it to make any recovery from it tepid or worse, he rather would have deferred until the future, resulting in himjumping on its caboose as it roared through state government and into law. Almost simultaneously, he let the insipid idea of paying part-time legislators a full-time salary mutate into putting him in the awkward position of having to drive his veto pen through it, souring relations with legislators who risked looking greedy, entitled, and out-of-touch only because they thought he would let them get away with it.
Since then, Jindal has provided more direction and came up big at the beginning of his second term, fresh off an impressive reelection, withitems that have fundamentally challenged and started transforming the state’s political culture. But they came at great cost to his popularity, and, combined with the natural decline of political capital as a governor ineligible for immediate reelection experiences in the last couple of years of his last term, obviously have made him consider his reach goes so far only to as to pursue, along with a couple of pieces of low-hanging fruit, one significant item this time around.
That would be tort reform, and even that he might have considered a bridge too far without the issue juiced by actions of a rogue state government subdivision. As it is, the fuss kicked up has raised the ire of many legislators independently of him, which makes the task of generally making the state less captive to jackpot justice and specifically curbing political maneuverings of these subdivisions one both likely tractable and one where he will get enough help that his diminished influence will be enough to get it across the goal line.
Yet while a governor in his seventh year, and particularly one not wildly popular, has but a limited offensive capability, his defensive capacity remains largely unaltered. It’s one thing to try to round up votes to get something done, but it’s entirely another and much easier to use the veto and other trades to stop stuff from happening. Thus, Jindal probably will expend the majority of his effort in defending and consolidating his gains, in the areas of warding off wasteful and counterproductive spending on Medicaid, an economically destructive increase in the minimum wage, undoing measures promoting quality and accountability in schools, and in other areas.
However, the light touch also allows for rambunctious legislators to put him in the position of having to make decisions on divisive issues that could erode his power more, or that could weigh down his ability to rise higher on the national political scene if his ambitions out of state office take him in that direction. For example, having to act either way regarding the largely overblown criticisms of the Common Core State Standards could alienate future political supporters. Or, having to derail measures that create special privileging of individuals based upon their sexual attitudes and behaviors through increased government regulation that often are presented to the public by their supporters in simplistic and disingenuous ways could create a false negative impression of him causing the same erosion of popular support. On these kinds of issues, Jindal will have to assure firm backing to legislative allies and then have them carry the load to get the job done in the hope he can stay out of the spotlight in any dealings on these.
A good man knows his limitations, and Jindal must realize that reduced political capital must be deployed efficiently – avoiding last year’s mistake in stumping for a tax overhaul plan that tried to thread a needle that in the process made his reach exceed his grasp. Expect a session consistent with this that follows the football maxim that defense wins championships.