The only thing that could bring more color to the multi-hued field of GOP presidential aspirants would be Caitlyn Jenner (a self-identified conservative) in a red swimsuit. Yet even such a diverse lineup might not help the GOP with minority voters whom it desperately needs to win the White House in 2016. And the reason is that the GOP has a knack for zeroing in on unpopular minority candidates who lack broad appeal in their own communities and are therefore poor ambassadors for the Republican Party.
This is true in ascending order of Hispanics Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, African-American Ben Carson, and—above all—Indian-American Bobby Jindal, who is expected to announce his candidacy at the end of the month.
One of the little-noticed political developments in the last four years is that the GOP, the party of whitebreads, has made far bigger strides than Democrats in promoting minorities to high political office. Writer John Avlon pointed out after the 2012 elections that although Democrats had placed more minorities in the House, the opposite was the case in the Senate.
The sole black person in the Senate at that time was a Republican (South Carolina's Tim Scott).* Only one Democratic senator (Robert Menendez) was a Hispanic compared to two Republicans (Rubio and Cruz). Even more remarkably, Republicans have two Hispanics (Brian Sandoval in Nevada and Susana Martinez in New Mexico) and two Indian Americans (Nikki Haley in South Carolina and Jindal in Louisiana) in gubernatorial mansions. The Democratic Party? Zero on both counts.
But none of this is expected to translate into minority votes for the GOP, something at least New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie understands, given that he lambasted Republicans last week for being insufficiently "welcoming to minority voters."
Other conservatives, however, blame Republicans' difficulties on the minorities themselves or their alleged love for Big Government handouts and affirmative action.
But whatever (little) explanatory power this line of thinking might have with regard to Hispanics and blacks, it has none for Indian Americans. They, after all, happen to have the highest median income of any ethnic group in the country and therefore don't rely on welfare. Nor do they like to pay high taxes. What's more, along with Chinese Americans they suffer even more from affirmative action quotas than white Americans. (It is not a coincidence that a Chinese American last month filed a federal complaint against Harvard University for discriminatory admission practices.)
One would think, therefore, that naked class interest would incline them to vote Republican. But, typically, 65 percent of Indian Americans vote Democratic (and a whopping 85 percent voted for Barack Obama)—comparable to Hispanics, blacks, and Jews, another comparatively wealthy minority.
It would seem that a Republican like Jindal would be a perfect candidate to turn things around. Jindal is a man of remarkable accomplishments who ought to be the golden boy of a community that worships at the altar of elite colleges. Raised by freshly immigrated parents, Jindal was admitted to not one, but two Ivy League graduate schools, both of which he spurned to pursue a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University. And he defied all odds to make history as the first Indian-American governor of the country.
"And yet poor Bobby doesn't cut it with American desis (natives of India)," notes Hoover Institution fellow Tunku Varadarajan. Why? Because what it takes for a desi to succeed as a Republican—if Jindal is a model—is immensely off-putting.
First, of course, is the matter of his religious conversion from Hinduism to Catholicism. This in itself wouldn't be a deal-breaker for most Indian Americans, even though about 51 percent of them happen to be Hindu. Jindal converted when he was still in high school, so not even the most cynical think it was a political move. However, the way he has deployed his adopted faith, using it to get closer to conservative Christian Americans while distancing himself from his birth community to advance his career, is another matter.
Consider his commencement speech to Liberty University, the largest Evangelical college in the world, last year, in which he addressed the liberal attack on the religious liberty of Christians. Given the topic, he could have mentioned that what's great about America is that, just like the original pioneers, folks like his parents come to America because it offers them economic opportunities without requiring them to abandon their faith. He movingly – and hilariously—recounted how he discovered the word of Christ by secretly reading the Bible in a closet. But he might have also noted that although he gave up his original faith, his parents and siblings continued to practice it, thanks to America's guarantee of religious freedom for all.
Jindal no doubt knows that, although Hinduism is one of the great religions of the world, among his fellow Christians it is regarded as a strange faith whose followers pray to multi-headed gods and believe in reincarnation. He could have used his familiarity with both to demystify Hinduism to his adopted community. He could have emphasized the points of agreement between the two—noting that if Hinduism's inherent pluralism gives it something in common with America's founding principles, its emphasis on piety gives it something in common with devout Christians.
None of this would take away one iota from his new faith, while also expanding the space for his old one. He could build bridges, instead of erecting walls. This would make him a hero to Indian-Americans and also broaden his appeal to political independents and even progressives. Instead, he has studiously avoided answering questions about his previous religious life as if it embarrassed him. More recently, he has even expressed exasperation with "hyphenated identities" because, evidently, they come in the way of full-blooded assimilation in American life.
No doubt Jindal has taken this tack because he feels that anything less would jeopardize his standing with his Christian base. But this only confirms for Indian Americans—rightly or wrongly—that Republicans are a narrow-minded bunch whose acceptance requires them to reject their faith, ways, and language. It is hardly any surprise, then, that they run into the arms of Democrats who might impose confiscatory taxes—but at least don't see them as a mortal threat to God, country, and apple pie. To the contrary, they pay homage to immigrant contributions to the great American mosaic.
This sounds hokey, but hokey acceptance is far preferable to an authentic rejection. When minority Republicans feel less need to distance themselves from their roots, minorities will feel less need to distance themselves from Republicans. But not until then.
*Update: Since then, Democrat Cory Booker, the former black mayor of New Jersey, has been elected to the Senate in a special election