Many people were expecting Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal to drop out of the presidential race long ago.
I was not one of them.
If you look at Jindal’s candidacy on paper, he seemed to be the perfect Republican contender: a young articulate conservative who did not fit the mold of GOP presidential nominees since 1856.
At one time, Jindal was a rock star within the GOP. People were making “Jindalista” t-shirts, aping the murder-chic Che garb that’s popular with the academically elite and historically ignorant.
The vanilla Jindal had no skeletons in his closet and his administration had been largely scandal free, though not free from controversy.
Yet the hype over Jindal’s political emergence crashed during his disastrous response to President Barack Obama’s lead off State of the Union in 2009. The man who Rush Limbaugh was proclaiming to be the next Ronald Reagan never fully recovered from his official national roll out. But as bad as it was, the response should not have been politically fatal to Jindal.
Then-Arkansas Bill Clinton had a similar “national debut” to overcome when he delivered what turned out to be the 1988 Democratic National Convention filibuster, instead of keynote speech. Clinton ended up getting booed during his speech and only received applause when he signaled that he had reached the conclusion of his address.
Yet Clinton managed to get beyond that, receiving his party’s nomination at the next convention only four years later. Hurricanes rained out Jindal’s appearances at the 2008 and 2012 Republican National Conventions and thus the foul odor of his flubbed State of the Union response remained.
When Jindal said, “That I’ve come to the realization that it’s not my time,” the governor was half-right as Jindal’s best shot at becoming president is not in the future but was in the past.
Jindal had two opportunities to run and win the Republican nomination for president. His first chance got scuttled when he failed to defeat Kathleen Blanco in the 2003 gubernatorial runoff. Had Jindal not underperformed in Republican strongholds, he would have won that race and demonstrated his crisis management skills during Hurricane Katrina.
Jindal would have established himself as a national figure and the Republican Party would have been spared the misery of the 2008 McCain campaign and its afterbirth, Meghan McCain the talking head.
Jindal’s next shot was 2012. Jindal could have chosen to forgo a second term as governor and jumped into the presidential race in 2011. Jindal might have also been able to have his cake and eat it too.
Fresh off his first term, having not drawn a serious challenger and having an obedient legislature not causing him trouble, Jindal could have quietly laid the groundwork for a presidential campaign that could be launched right after the October primary. That Jindal had White House aspirations was a poorly kept secret and with his popularity at the time, the voters would have given him a pass. Jindal got almost 2/3 of the vote in 2011 and could have afforded the political hit of an expected presidential campaign.
Even as a last minute entry Jindal would have electrified the race and easily emerged as Mitt Romney’s main rival, more so than the social conservative default candidate Rick Santorum.
Instead Jindal chose to play it safe, getting behind the candidacy of Texas governor Rick Perry and riding shotgun with him across Iowa in what was one of the most spectacular presidential campaign meltdowns in history.
Did Jindal really think Perry was viable or was the Louisiana governor simply afraid to take on a sitting president?
By waiting, the once hot Jindal brand got stale and he saw his spotlight hijacked by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Dr. Ben Carson and Donald Trump.
While social conservatives Mike Huckabee and Santorum will benefit from the departure of Jindal as they seek to regain the magic that allowed them to achieve surprise wins in the Hawkeye State caucuses, Cruz is the big beneficiary from the Jindal withdrawal.
Jindal was arguably the lone threat to Cruz’s bid to present himself as the fresh faced conservative with appeal to evangelicals. Though not polling well nationally, Jindal had demonstrated traction in the Iowa cornfields, polling fifth ahead of Jeb Bush, Huckabee and Santorum.
So long as Jindal stuck around, a slip up by Cruz could have been exploited by Jindal. Now the TEA Party champion can start the real mop up work consolidating Iowa’s influential evangelical base around his candidacy.
Trump can add Jindal’s scalp next to Walker’s in his political trophy case as the billionaire’s presence in a crowded field minimized the opportunities for less prominent conservatives like Jindal to rise up. Trump’s occupation of a quarter of the vote kept Jindal in polling asterisk territory and exiled to the “children’s table” at the presidential debates.
But what ultimately made a 2016 Jindal presidential run a doomed enterprise was the homefront, as his staggering low popularity in the Pelican State was an albatross weighing down his viability.
In the event Jindal were to exploit a falter by Cruz or Carson, his candidacy would be smacked down by questions about why he was so disliked in Louisiana and the fiscal problems that are compounding in Baton Rouge.
While Jindal has regularly dismissed unfavorable polling data to local reporters while zipping to his car, it’s a lot harder to do when you are standing on a debate podium. And as news of the state’s deteriorating fiscal situation followed him into debates, Jindal simply couldn’t provide satisfactory explanations.
There is going to be no shortage of harsh write ups of the Jindal Administration come January, as members of the belligerent (perhaps justifiably so) state press corps pen their unkind obituaries of his time in office.
Yet the reason why there’s unlikely to be a President Jindal is because he failed to seize the moment years before.