The whiz is gone.
For years, national reporters profiling Bobby Jindal and his political rise inevitably referred to him as a whiz kid — Rhodes scholar at 21, Cabinet secretary at 24, university system president at 28, governor at 36 in 2008.
Not with Louisiana threatened by financial disaster after Jindal inherited a $1 billion budget surplus eight years ago and left Gov. John Bel Edwards with a $3 billion deficit. Not with state legislators — Republicans and Democrats alike — openly deriding him, two months after he stepped down as governor. Not after ending his presidential campaign in November long before any votes were cast. Not after Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, the candidate he then backed, dropped out of the race Tuesday night.
“It’s hard to comprehend where he was eight years ago and where he is today,” said James Carville, a political strategist who lives in New Orleans. “He’s a really smart man who made a bad bet in thinking that the most extreme form of no tax increases, deep budget cuts, of ‘never letting anybody get to the right of me’ agenda would prevail. I don’t know what’s more disastrous — the situation for the state or his political future.”
Carville, of course, is a devoted Democrat.
Many Republicans aren’t much kinder.
“We just spent the past 3½ weeks dealing with the budget mess he left us,” said state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, referring to the recently completed special session that aimed to close an immediate $900 million or so midyear budget gap.
Lawmakers left a $70 million hole — the budget ax will begin to fall this week — and a $750 million shortfall for the upcoming year, out of the $2 billion gap Jindal left them.
Martiny pointing the finger at Jindal reflects a majority of public opinion, a new University of New Orleans poll shows.
About 55 percent of active registered voters blame the budget crisis on the former governor.
“He’s a personable guy,” Martiny said. “But he wasted a great opportunity. For the last eight years, we could have done a lot more.”
Jindal took office in 2008 amid a wave of optimism after the government’s widely panned response to Hurricane Katrina. He and the Legislature passed an ethics bill, cut taxes for individuals, awarded tax breaks galore to businesses and privatized the operations of LSU’s hospitals. Every week, it seemed, he was announcing a new company investing in the state. When a natural disaster hit, he talked a mile a minute about the latest supplies and moves by the government and emergency workers.
In 2011, Jindal was riding so high that no major Democrat dared challenge his re-election bid.
The following year, hailed as a conservative political hero, he was touted as a possible pick to be the Republican vice presidential candidate. It didn’t happen.
A year later, Roger Villere, chairman of the state Republican Party, said he was receiving so many invitations for Jindal to speak at party gatherings across the country that Jindal had to turn most of them down.
But by 2015, it seemed that Jindal was accepting most of them. “This is the 63rd day I’m acting governor,” then Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne said at one point. By September, Dardenne’s number had climbed above 100.
In the meantime, the state’s finances were on the move, too — downward. The much-touted new businesses weren’t providing enough tax revenue to keep up with spending, even after Jindal and the Legislature cut state dollars to the public colleges and universities by more than any other state.
At the same time, Jindal religiously observed his no-tax pledge to Grover Norquist in Washington. This led him and legislators to implement short-term budget fixes, raid the state’s reserve bank accounts and adopt accounting gimmicks to plug the budget deficit. The loss in tax revenue from the drop in oil prices exacerbated the state’s financial crunch, now the worst in 30 years.
In April, a Southern Media & Opinion Research poll showed that only 32 percent of voters gave him a thumbs-up — down sharply from his 61 percent approval rating three years earlier. It didn’t help Jindal’s popularity in 2015 that the four candidates for governor — including the three Republicans — took turns turning him into a political pinata.
Edwards, a Democrat, won an improbable victory in conservative Louisiana in part because voters wanted to repudiate Jindal.
Too busy running for president, “he didn’t look after the state of Louisiana,” said Thibodaux Rep. Dee Richard, who has no party affiliation.
Jindal launched his campaign for president on June 24. It ended after only 146 days, some 2½ months before folks in Iowa cast the first primary votes.
[Flashback: Video below of when Jindal discussed his decision to drop out the presidential race]
Jindal endorsed Rubio in February and campaigned for him in Oklahoma but was curiously nowhere to be seen when Louisiana held its primary election two weeks ago.
“I don’t think it would have helped Rubio at all,” said Rob Couhig, a Republican attorney in New Orleans who was a co-chairman of the senator’s state campaign. “We’re on the record, so I’ll leave it at that.”
Besides backing Rubio, Jindal has sought to remain relevant by granting interviews to cable TV shows and writing opinion pieces for newspapers.
Speaking to MSNBC, Jindal said he would reluctantly support Donald Trump for the Republican nomination, even though he lacerated Trump when he was a candidate.
“I didn’t wake this morning a big fan of Donald Trump,” Jindal said. “I hope it’s not him; he’s not my favorite. I think Donald Trump’s wrong on a whole host of issues.”
Charlie Cook, a Shreveport native, has seen politicians rise and fall during his years as the editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report in Washington.
Asked to identify what role Jindal might play in the remainder of the 2016 election, Cook paused a full 10 seconds before finally saying, “There isn’t one. What would he bring to the table?”
Could he be tabbed to join the GOP ticket as a vice president?
“If you want a minority, you would go with [Gov.] Nikki Haley or [Sen.] Tim Scott,” both from South Carolina, Cook said. “If you wanted a successful governor, there are other places to go. Plus, Louisiana isn’t in play” for the general election. “Whether Louisiana’s state finances are his fault or not, the widespread perception is that it is.”
After leaving the Governor’s Mansion, Jindal, his wife Supriya and their three children moved into a new house in the University Club neighborhood of Baton Rouge. Jindal did not respond to requests for comment.
Rolfe McCollister Jr., a close associate from the business community, said he expects Jindal will join the paid speaking circuit, as well as a corporate board or two.
“He wants to take his time and find the right fit,” said McCollister, who publishes the Baton Rouge Business Report and other publications.
To be sure, Jindal showed the political canny and smarts to win the Super Bowl of Louisiana politics twice and, at 44, is young enough to potentially recover his chosen career. Richard Nixon, for one, was elected president in 1968 only six years after being written off following a failed race for governor.
“I believe that in the years ahead, when we look back, he’ll get a higher grade,” said Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe. “With what he did on economic development, it just takes time to see the benefits.”
But in the meantime, Hoffmann admitted, “he’s pretty unpopular.”
A UNO poll in November showed that his approval rating had sunk to 20 percent, said Anthony Licciardi, a UNO doctoral student in political science.
Louisiana has an open U.S. Senate seat with David Vitter not seeking re-election. But the state’s best-known Republican is not a candidate.
“You never say never,” pollster and political consultant Bernie Pinsonat said, “but his chances of holding office again in Louisiana are slim and none. The question is whether voters will ever forgive him. I don’t see it.”
Jindal is so disliked in the Legislature now that lawmakers — who face the politically unappealing choices of making drastic cuts in government programs or raising taxes — fell over themselves during the special session to rescind his SAVE legislation, a phony tax credit he pushed successfully last year to get Norquist to decree that $700 million of tax increases weren’t actually tax increases.
State Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, and Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston, both sponsored measures to repeal SAVE. They joked that they should join forces and call it the BS bill.
“It’s not that he doesn’t have friends,” said Martin Johnson, an LSU professor of political communication. “It’s just that they can’t stand on the stage with him.”
It was far different when he was inaugurated in 2008, said state Rep. Jack Montoucet, a wily Cajun and alligator farmer.
“Republicans thought he was leading them to the golden city gates,” said Montoucet, D-Scott. “Upon arrival, all they found was a marsh full of alligators.”
Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @TegBridges. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.
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