Bobby Jindal's Muddled Message

What does he stand for again?


Bobby Jindal
Gage Skidmore / Foter / CC BY-SA

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was supposed to be the conservative answer to President Barack Obama: a first-generation Indian-American who rejected offers from Harvard med and Yale law to study political science on a Rhodes scholarship. He was the whiz-bang wonk who would use his policy smarts to lift the Republican Party from its doldrums with innovative solutions and vision, catapulting himself to the White House in the process.

Such lofty prognostications, common seven years ago, are few and far between these days. The Real Clear Politics poll average shows Jindal sputtering in second-to-last place among a dozen Republican presidential hopefuls—behind newbies like Dr. Ben Carson and has-beens like Rick Santorum. And the reason isn't just Jindal's awkward, comedy-inspiring response to the 2009 State of Union address, though that still haunts him.

The real culprit, perhaps, is that Jindal has forgotten a core teaching of Hinduism, the religion he left to convert to Catholicism: Act for the sake of your duty or principles without expectation of material rewards (karam karo, phal ke iccha nahin).

Jindal has subordinated his duties as a governor to his presidential ambitions, and the more he's done that, the less effective he's become as both governor and presidential candidate, paradoxically undermining the very goal he seeks.

By all accounts, Jindal's first term as governor of the Bayou State, where he was born and raised by barely off-the-boat parents, was quite successful. He assumed office in 2008 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and before the economic meltdown—yet managed to rebuild New Orleans, literally from scratch.

He used the weakened chokehold of teachers' unions to push major education reforms, making the city a national leader in school choice. When President Obama was busy shutting down a voucher program that had liberated hundreds of black children from dysfunctional D.C. public schools, Jindal was handing New Orleans' 83 percent minority population virtually unprecedented control over its education destiny through vouchers, charters, and course choice.

Over 93 percent of New Orleans kids attend charter schools today. Graduation rates, especially among black male teens, the most challenging cohort for educators, are soaring, with about 65 percent of them graduating on time last year, six points more than the national average. College enrollment has risen 100 percent since 2005.

What's more, Jindal lived up to his promise of "making Louisiana's economy bigger and the government smaller." He cut over 30,000 workers from the state rolls through aggressive privatization of the state Medicaid program, state-run charity hospitals, and the risk-management office. He used the savings to roll back a 2002 income tax hike.

All of this reversed Louisiana's post-Katrina exodus, producing a net population increase of 250,000 on his watch. Private sector jobs have grown 5 percent, placing the state fifth in the nation in terms of job growth. Between 2008 and 2012, Louisiana's inflation-adjusted GDP grew by 7.9 percent compared to 3.2 percent nationally, boosting Louisiana's average per capita personal income by 15 percent.

And yet… Jindal's second term has been as big a flop as his first term was a success.

Nothing illustrates this better than his plummeting popularity in the state: Three years after being re-elected with a whopping 65 percent of the vote, his approval rating has sunk to 27 percent.

Critics point out that Jindal spent literally half of 2014 outside Louisiana (and only one of the trips was official state business), especially in the nation's capital, making speeches before conservative think tanks, courting donors, and scoping out staffers.

But his ambition has not only distracted him from the state's affairs, but also distorted his gubernatorial priorities. One reason for the state's yawning $1.6 billion deficit is that he has resorted to easy budgetary gimmicks that he once criticized (such as raiding the state's rainy day funds, issuing tax amnesties) rather than dealing with broader structural issues, like the state's bizarre tax code.

Gordon Russell, a Baton Rouge columnist, likens Louisiana's tax code to a "huge Swiss cheese" shot through with special exemptions for businesses "large and small, sublime and ridiculous, important and petty." Thanks to these, Louisiana businesses pay very low taxes, even though on paper Louisiana is a high-tax state.

Jindal proposed a major reform to eliminate the state's income tax in exchange for raising sales taxes and closing some of these business loopholes in 2013. But after that went down in flames, he chose the path of least resistance.

Not only did he embrace the bulk of the state's 400-plus corporate giveaways, he expanded them and even implemented some new ones. Louisiana's six largest giveaways—worth $200 million under Jindal's predecessor—have grown to $1 billion on his watch, partly because he wants to come across as business friendly and partly because he wants to do nothing that seems like a violation of his no-tax-hike pledge to Americans for Tax Reform. The state now hands out nearly $250 million in film subsidies alone—with every episode of Duck Dynasty, whose homophobic protagonist-and-owner is Jindal's biggest fan, receiving $330,000. Jindal might have gotten away with handing out such corporate pork—if cheap oil hadn't decimated the state's oil revenues, or if so many of Louisiana's budget items weren't protected by voters or the state constitution.

Instead of meeting these challenges head on, Jindal seems to have given up on Louisiana and, in turn, the state seems to have given up on him. (His 2016 budget includes some cuts in corporate pork, but it is too little, too late.)

Without a solid gubernatorial performance to tout, there doesn't seem to be anything unique that Jindal can offer GOP voters that other GOP candidates can't, especially now that Scott Walker, the spectacularly successful governor of Wisconsin, is considering a presidential bid. Not only did Walker prevail against the most powerful liberal interest group in his state (labor unions), but restored his popularity as well.

Perhaps Jindal senses his comparative advantage slipping, which is why he's been casting around wildly for a workable message. In recent months, he's tried to position himself as the ideas candidate (admonishing the GOP not to be the "stupid party, releasing copious proposals for health care and energy reform), a religious warrior (who's had it with the liberal war on religious liberty), a cultural purist (who wants to restrict Muslims because they don't assimilate in America), and a security hawk (who demands a boost in defense spending).

Jindal's new faith might be a great source of personal strength. But to sort out his existential confusion as a politician, he might have to reacquaint himself with the wisdom of his old faith and try and figure out not how he can become president, but why he should. Material rewards come not when one chases them directly, but as a byproduct of pursuing a higher cause.

This column originally appeared in The Week.