In the Advocate over the weekend, Quin Hillyer gives the Bobby Jindal For Prez camp a dose of reality. He gives four reasons why a Jindal presidential run is a mistake, but this one, by itself, is dispositive…
First and most important, Jindal has unfinished business in Louisiana. The state budget is a mess. The battles over Common Core and a major wetlands lawsuit remain unresolved, and both will require not just gubernatorial dictates but a governor’s active diplomacy to resolve. The state continues to fight legal battles to preserve its school choice programs and tenure reforms, while implementation thereof remains incomplete.
I have argued on these pages that Jindal has been a much better governor than many Louisianans now believe: His privatization of management of the charity hospital system will be a long-term boon for the state; his education reforms are wonderful; his aggressive business recruitment has been superb; the state’s bond rating has improved and its economy is strong; and his crisis management (hurricanes, oil spill) has been exemplary. But if he leaves too many loose ends — and frayed ends — his fellow presidential candidates will use the evidence to tie his campaign in knots.
The other three: the 2016 field is just too deep to gain traction, a presidential bid that explodes on the launch pad all but insures a vice-presidential nod won’t happen and Jindal is virtually assured of a cabinet post in a GOP administration come January of 2017 if he finishes strong as Louisiana’s governor.
While those are absolutely true, the fact is Jindal hasn’t established a resume quite good enough to make him the man for the moment next year.
What the moment will require is someone who can demonstrate command of several hugely important skills. To follow Barack Obama, we need a candidate who;
1. Has demonstrated the ability to budget successfully. Now, it’s exceedingly difficult to do that in Louisiana, because you have a state legislature which has never done a good job of getting the budget in order and a public which is well aware of that and continuously votes to take the budget out of the hands of the legislature by dedicating funds to pet “protected” causes. Therefore, there is no freedom either on Jindal’s part or that of the legislature to budget correctly and we’re going to have a mess every year.
We also have a Revenue Estimating Conference which consistently blows its estimates to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Jim Richardson, the LSU economist who prepares the budget estimates for the REC every year, is more or less always wrong and famously so. And that means Jindal’s job as the manager of Louisiana’s budget is, more or less every year, to find ways to make midyear budget cuts.
So perhaps the state budget will always be a mess. And Jindal gets credit for not doing what the state constitution is basically designed to do, which is to raise taxes to cover budget holes. That’s what Jindal’s predecessors all did, and he’s going to run on the fact he’s not a tax-raiser. But as Hillyer said, there are lots of non-tax raisers in the 2016 field. A lot of those folks have also shown they can but a budget down to a manageable size and create a surplus while not raising taxes. Jindal hasn’t shown that, and for that reason he’s not going to have an argument as the most qualified potential nominee.
Had Jindal made reforming Louisiana’s budget process and making changes to the state’s constitution which would enable policymakers to stabilize the public fisc, and had he gone through the state budget line by line and wiped out a lot of the sacred cows that everybody knows need to be slaughtered, this wouldn’t be a killer for him. But he didn’t, so it is.
2. Can point to a record of shrinking government. Here, Jindal can show that he’s made some progress. Louisiana’s state payroll is smaller than it was when he took office, and Louisiana’s state budget has shrunk considerably from the Katrina recovery-bloated size he inherited and rode for the first two years of his tenure in the governor’s mansion. He can also point to a few key things like the privatization of the Charity Hospitals around the state as accomplishments which might suggest he could wipe out some useless federal agencies and programs the nation desperately needs to rid itself of. But can Jindal show a record of doing so that compares to, say, a Scott Walker in Wisconsin? That’s a hard case to make. Walker killed off an entire industry of union health care insurance preying on local governments powerless to resist its imposition in collective bargaining agreements, and in doing so freed every local government in that state to save millions of dollars and stop drawing subsidies from the state of Wisconsin.
Jindal hasn’t won any legislative battles like that. He’s certainly won some reforms, but to date he can’t show that he’s fundamentally changed the political reality in Louisiana the way some of the other candidates have in their states.
3. Can build consensus through winning the argument. Ronald Reagan was really good at this, and Reagan built a lasting majority, maybe not necessarily for the Republican Party but certainly for conservatism (Bill Clinton had to govern as, in his own words, an “Eisenhower Republican” after the 1994 GOP House takeover) for a quarter century until the 2006 elections. And yes, Reagan compromised when he had to, but he set down an agenda that the American people demanded of their politicians for more than a generation and in fact still largely demand. Prior to Reagan’s ascension to office in 1980, much of what he stood for – winning the Cold War, deregulation, welfare and tax reform – was considered politically impossible.
Jindal can point to his education reform package and say he’s made fundamental changes to the state’s agenda, but that’s an inconvenient case to make when he’s spending all his time trying to get Louisiana out of Common Core after initially supporting it. School choice is terrific, and teacher tenure reform was necessary, but it wouldn’t be totally inaccurate to say Jindal’s reforms have suffered some slowdowns in the courts of law and public opinion. We’d say that doesn’t detract from the success he’s had in furthering a true educational marketplace in Louisiana, and that’s fundamental change. But has he fundamentally changed Louisiana politics overall? We haven’t heard a good argument for that contention yet.
If anything, there may be a perception of Jindal as something of a political lightweight in the state right now. Neil Riser’s loss in that 2015 special election did Jindal some damage, and Bill Cassidy’s win over Mary Landrieu was seen much more as a triumph for David Vitter, who appears to be the favorite to succeed Jindal. And while Garret Graves’ win offers Jindal an opportunity to point to somebody who worked for him now being a member of Congress, Graves didn’t run as a “Jindal guy.” In short, unless Scott Angelle wins the governor’s race next fall – which looks like a long shot right now – Jindal’s faction within the Louisiana GOP might well melt away by 2016. And if you’re not able to set yourself up as the 800-pound gorilla in your own state’s politics it’s tough to say you could be a game-changer on the national stage.
At the end of the day, Bobby Jindal is a policy wonk who’s capable of tweaking a program to spit out better results and diminish the ability of the Left to dominate its functions. As Hillyer suggested, that makes him a no-brainer hire as a cabinet secretary – and somebody who ought to have his pick between agencies like Education, HHS, Energy or even Commerce when and if the GOP retakes the White House in 2016. Jindal is also young enough to continue preparing himself for a presidential run, and he might be able to pick up other skills that could help him become a nominee in, say, 2024 or even 2032 (when he’ll only be 60).
But to do it now would be to detract from his legacy as Louisiana’s governor. He has a year left in that regard and he still has a chance to make it a meaningful one. Running for president means he’s a lame duck and what local political base he has will vanish.