WASHINGTON — The same but different.
The aftermath of the horrific shooting in a Lafayette theater Thursday was not the first time Gov. Bobby Jindal provided a public response to a similar tragedy as a player on the national stage.
The day after the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, that killed nine people in a church June 17, Jindal said it was not the time to discuss gun control but rather an occasion for prayer and hugs.
Jindal officially announced his entry in the campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination a week later, but he was regarded as a candidate for months before then — and it was in that light that he was asked to respond to President Barack Obama’s suggestion that the Charleston tragedy fit a distinctly American pattern of firearms violence that should be addressed.
Jindal characterized Obama’s comment as a “completely shameful” attempt to “score cheap political points.”
In the hours after the Lafayette shooting, in which a gunman fatally shot two women and wounded nine others before taking his own life, Jindal again said prayers and hugs made for the appropriate response.
“There’ll be a time; I’m sure folks will want to jump into the politics of this,” he said. “Now is not the time.”
That didn’t prevent gun control advocates from landing on Jindal with both feet. The New Republic accused Jindal of enabling gun violence in Louisiana — a state with one of the highest rates of firearms violence and least-restrictive gun regulations — citing his enthusiastic pro-gun record and support for legislation that permits guns in churches and creates lifetime concealed-carry permits. In the Daily Mail, commentator Piers Morgan was particularly vehement, saying the blood of the victims was on Jindal’s hands.
But such attacks are unlikely to faze Jindal, said Bernie Pinsonat, a veteran Louisiana political pollster.
“That’s like throwing him into the briar patch,” Pinsonat said. “Democrats or anyone else who is anti-gun, they’re not voting for Jindal anyway.”
The gun violence issue actually provides Jindal, who temporarily suspended his campaign on Thursday, with a chance to enhance his standing with the Republican base, if he chooses to advocate such conservative responses as arming more citizens so they can defend themselves or strengthening mental health programs to prevent disturbed people from acquiring guns, said Geoff Skelly, of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
And Jindal’s role as the liberals’ punching bag could boost his standing with a typical partisan Republican voter, who might think, “ ‘If the Democrats hate him that much, I may need to like him a little bit more,’ ” said Dan Birdsong, a political scientist at the University of Dayton in Ohio.
Jindal’s stress on prayer as a palliative for the tragedy should appeal to the evangelical voters he has courted assiduously and who play an outsized role in the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses that begin the nomination process, Skelly said.
“His rhetoric makes perfect sense,” Skelly said. Jindal has campaigned heavily in Iowa, and the state is crucial to his electoral strategy.
“The downside, of course, is if it appears that he is making something out of a tragedy,” Birdsong said. “It can backfire. It’s a very fine line.”
Two of Jindal’s Republican rivals — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and real-estate developer and reality-TV celebrity Donald Trump — were singed on that score recently. While campaigning, Christie mentioned the case of a man stabbed to death on the subway in Washington, and Trump invoked a woman killed by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco. Both were called out by relatives of the victims, who said the candidates had not bothered to speak with them before trying to capitalize on the tragedies.
“Bobby Jindal has to tread lightly as he moves forward,” Birdsong said. But the official position Jindal holds offers him protection, Birdsong said.
“He does have some leeway because he is the governor and it happened in his state,” he said. “He does have a legitimate reason to respond and be there. It does give him a chance to project an image as a leader.”
The projection of his image, on national television as a result of network news coverage of the shooting, may redound to Jindal’s advantage as much as anything else, Pinsonat said.
Jindal has struggled to break from the back of the pack in the crowded Republican field. He consistently brings up the rear, polling in the low single digits. And despite his efforts in Iowa, a recent poll there shows he is less well known among Republicans than most of the party’s other contenders.
The shooting does not call for the exercise of executive power and decision-making in the way that a hurricane or other major disaster would, but it is nonetheless a high-profile event for Jindal. The governor has ordered flags at state government buildings flown at half staff. He directed law enforcement officers on Saturday to prevent potential demonstrators from disturbing the peace at the victims’ funerals, after the extremist Westboro Baptist Church threatened to protest (the shooter was a supporter of the church, although they did not claim him as a member).
“He’s in the national spotlight,” Pinsonat said. “A lot of voters out there are observing how he’s handling this and who he is, and paying attention to what he says and what he does.”