Transom scribe Ben Domenech calls Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s recent speech to the Republican National Convention “as close to an encapsulation of libertarian populism” as he’s seen from an elected official. That’s not how I would describe it, but Jindal did manage to deliver a rare thing: a major political speech that’s actually worth reading.
Which is not to say it’s one I entirely, or even mostly, agree with. Jindal’s speech is admirably focused on getting away from a Washington-centric view of America and the economy. But he’s so determined to push the idea that government isn’t the be-all, end-all of American life that he ends up saying things like: “Balancing our government’s books is not what matters most.” Instead, it’s “a nice goal, but not what matters most.” He warns that “today’s conservatism is completely wrapped up in solving the hideous mess that is the federal budget, the burgeoning deficits, the mammoth federal debt, the shortfall in our entitlement programs…even as we invent new entitlement programs,” and is clear that he thinks this monomania is a bad thing. His fellow conservatives, he says, should be focused on promoting a vision of growth, of economic success that has nothing to do with government intervention, of entrepreneurship and individual initiative. Instead, he says, they “have an obsession with bookkeeping.”
Judging by the actual governing record of Republicans in Washington, they aren’t nearly obsessed enough. It was under President Bush that federal spending climbed the most in both real and per-capita terms, that Congress nearly doubled defense spending and passed an unfunded expansion of Medicare benefits. President Obama took Bush’s inflated spending levels, topped them off, and has more or less made them permanent—but it was Bush who allowed federal spending to grow the most. That’s what happened when Republicans focused on growth rather than boring old budget math, and it’s part of why the budget situation is, as Jindal correctly notes, such a wreck today.
Nor is it clear that this GOP obsession has grown stronger in ways that matter. Republicans remain wary of talking about real cuts to spending: Just look at Mitt Romney’s detail-free campaign, or House Speaker John Boehner’s repeated evasions when it comes to offering specifics about spending cuts or entitlement reforms. In the last week, the GOP has hatched a plan to try putting together a budget that balances in a decade, but the boldest budget framework that Republicans have endorsed so far—the Ryan Roadmap—was a plan to balance the budget in about forty years. Today’s Republicans could probably stand to be a little more wrapped up in “solving the hideous mess that is the federal government”—especially since it’s a mess that yesterday’s Republicans helped create.
So why do I think it’s a speech worth reading? Because for all the griping about how Republicans are too focused on fixing federal failures, and too little focused on the campaign-friendly topic of jolting economic growth, Jindal hints at a refreshingly (almost) radical vision of federal reform:
We must focus on the empowerment of citizens making relevant and different decisions in their communities while Democrats sell factory-style government that cranks out one dumbed-down answer for the whole country.
This means re-thinking nearly every social program in Washington. Very few of them work in my view, and frankly, the one-size fits all crowd has had its chance.
If any rational human being were to create our government anew, today, from a blank piece of paper – we would have about one fourth of the buildings we have in Washington and about half of the government workers.
We would replace most of its bureaucracy with a handful of good websites.
If we created American government today, we would not dream of taking money out of people’s pockets, sending it all the way to Washington, handing it over to politicians and bureaucrats to staple thousands of pages of artificial and political instructions to it, then wear that money out by grinding it through the engine of bureaucratic friction…and then sending what’s left of it back to the states, where it all started, in order to grow the American economy.
What we are doing now to govern ourselves is not just wrong. It is out of date and it is a failure.
This, in my view, is the most interesting part of the speech, and the part with the most potential. That’s a pretty low threshold, to be sure, but how often does one hear a major political figure even suggest that we should not simply accept the dysfunctional major federal policy structures of today and work within their bounds? I don’t expect much to come of it, of course, but it’s nice to hear Jindal go beyond asking how to manage the policy infrastructure we have a little more efficiently (not that doing so would be a bad thing!).
I call this an almost radical vision of federal reform because the answers Jindal suggests are quite a bit smaller than the big questions he seems to be asking: Block granting federal programs is a good idea, and could significantly improve any number of existing policies, but still requires the federal government to funnel megabucks into state budgets. And I’d love to replace bureaucrats and bureaucracies with accessible web portals, but in this context, Jindal’s remark has the whiff of tech-guru utopianism. The GOP doesn’t need any more consultants promising to make things easy. In a later section of the speech, meanwhile, Jindal tacks on a series of bullet points that basically restate the GOP’s old commitments to government-led social conservatism and defense-hawk maximalism. Jindal, like many Republican reformers, seems unwilling to consider the possibility that those commitments might be out of date failures as well.
Still, he gets two big ideas right: One is that government isn’t everything, or even most everything; it's a sideshow, and life has an awful lot more to offer than another tax break, public benefit, or office of somekindasomething affairs. That's something that politicians don't say enough, and certainly don't act on very often. The other is that policy reform is a bigger project than most of today’s Republicans imagine, and should involve a ground-up rethinking of just about everything government currently does.
The speech is pretty pointedly directed at a Republican party that's doing some rethinking of its own right now. Indeed, part of what’s fascinating here is that you can see the collision of two strains of right-of-center reformism: On the one hand, Jindal sounds notes that are awfully reminiscent of the Bush-era compassionate conservatism that disregarded basic budget soundness in favor of pro-growth economic happy talk. On the other hand, he suggests the outlines of a vision for wholesale, limited-government reform—one that not only asks how to make government work, but what government is actually for. It's not a vision of "populist libertarianism" so much as a vision of populism and a vision of something kinda sorta friendly to libertarianism competing for dominance. Jindal doesn't get these two ideas to harmonize, but he does suggest that as the GOP reconsiders its mission and purpose, they'll be duking it out for a while to come.