Washington — At 24, Bobby Jindal, an Ivy League graduate and Rhodes scholar, was picked by Gov. Mike Foster to head the state Department of Health and Hospitals, commanding an agency with 12,000 employees that accounted for 40 percent of the state budget.
At 28, he was appointed the youngest president of the University of Louisiana System.
A couple years later, President George W. Bush named him assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, making him the DHH director’s chief policy adviser.
In 2003, still just 32, Jindal entered electoral politics as a Republican candidate for governor. He led the open primary but lost the runoff, in what soon looked like a brief hiccup in a meteoric career. He was elected to Congress the next year and, in 2007, swept the field in his second run for governor, taking office as the youngest governor in the country. He easily won re-election in 2011.
He was a rising political star, called by some “the Republican Obama” for his youth and nonwhite ethnicity (Jindal was born in Baton Rouge to immigrants from India). The GOP picked Jindal to deliver its response to the 2009 State of the Union address by the nation’s first black president, Democrat Barack Obama.
But now, Jindal, 44, has been seemingly kicked to the curb.
Last week, he abandoned his run for the Republican nomination for president, just 146 days after he officially declared his entry and still 21/2 months shy of the Iowa caucuses, which initiate the formal nomination process Feb. 1 and which Jindal had relentlessly targeted. He spent more time campaigning in Iowa than any of his rivals, hoping that a big showing there would boost him in later primaries and caucuses.
Despite occasional blips in the polls, he never sustained success in Iowa and fared even worse in national surveys, which doomed him to the not-ready-for-prime-time undercard stages for all four nationally televised GOP debates.
The Jindal campaign’s fundraising was anemic, and Jindal won no endorsements from a sitting governor or member of Congress. Barred by state law from seeking re-election as governor, he has returned home to a state that has overwhelmingly repudiated him and his legacy: A recent poll conducted by the University of New Orleans showed only 20 percent of the Louisiana voters surveyed approve of his job performance.
Both of the candidates in the recent runoff to succeed him — Democratic John Bel Edwards and Republican David Vitter — had sought to malign the other by linking him to Jindal. And after eight years of Jindal, the voters of deep-red Louisiana elected Edwards, the Democrat.
“The high-water mark for Jindal’s presidential aspirations was the moment the light went on the camera when he was delivering the State of the Union response,” said Charlie Cook, the Shreveport native who writes the national Cook Political Report. “By the time the light went off, his chances were significantly lower than they were at the beginning and never really recovered. There was curiosity about him at the national level that was extinguished that night, and it just sort of never came back.”
Jindal’s performance was widely mocked. In his autobiographical book “Leadership and Crisis,” Jindal concedes, “I blew it” (he blames his failure on his discomfort with teleprompters).
It’s not as if Jindal’s televised response was scrutinized by millions of voters who were repelled by his behavior, Cook said. But it was watched by opinion-makers within the Republican Party who saw nothing to like and moved on to someone else, he said.
“In a different world, he might have been able to overcome that,” said David Crockett, chairman of the political science department at Trinity University in San Antonio.
By “a different world,” Crockett meant a primary contest without the unprecedented size and depth of the current Republican lineup. Jindal went up against 10 or more rivals better known and better financed than he.
“He got into the race in a historically crowded field and was not able to set himself apart in a unique way that got him enough attention,” Crockett said.
When he returned to Baton Rouge last Wednesday, Jindal said he blamed himself for his failure to gain traction. He noted that on top of financial struggles, he had spent significant time developing policy papers on issues like health care and energy policy, but they never got much attention.
“In this election, that just wasn’t the most exciting thing,” he said.
Those papers were released through America Next, a nonprofit advocacy group he chairs that spent $300,000 on TV ads to boost his Iowa campaign. Jindal said he will continue working with the group after his term ends in January.
But despite those proposals, Jindal’s campaign often shifted its focus to issues of the day. The conservative Washington Examiner newspaper summed it up thusly: “As his campaign failed to gain traction he steadily shed his image as a thoughtful policy analyst and started serving up red meat.”
Jindal railed against secularism and cultural decay, proclaimed “Our God wins!” while headlining a prayer rally in Baton Rouge and in his closing remarks at the CNBC-TV debate Oct. 28 said, “As Christians, we believe that the tomb is empty.”
He also advocated a tough line on Muslim immigrants and radical Islamists. And he was particularly harsh in his criticism of Obama, declaring, while standing outside the White House, that Obama was unfit to be commander in chief and rushing to defend former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani when Giuliani expressed his belief that Obama does not love his country.
“As his campaign failed to gain altitude, they started doing wild and crazy things to get attention,” Cook said. “That just marginalized him even more.
“Beating up on Obama is fair game in the Republican Party,” Cook said, “but that language that Jindal employed just took it to a whole new level and just made him look smaller.”
In a year when anti-establishment fever waxes hot in the electorate, Jindal assaulted virtually everyone in public office, calling for the dismissal of every member of Congress, Democratic and Republican.
But in the “crazy, unpredictable election season,” the two leading Republican candidates in the polls are political neophytes who have never run for elective office before: billionaire developer and reality TV star Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Although Jindal took up the mantle of Trump-slayer late in his campaign, it proved difficult for a candidate who has spent almost his entire career in public office to attest to more anti-establishment credentials than Trump and Carson.
And that was not the sole lane that Jindal tried to enter only to find it filled with rivals. Carson has cultivated a deep appeal to evangelical voters, as have former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas.
“When there are six or seven candidates running, there are only a couple competing for each sector of the primary vote,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California and a veteran of four Republican presidential campaigns. “When there are 15, each of those sectors gets a lot more crowded,” he said.
“The different factions already have their favorite person,” Crockett said, “and he wasn’t able to move into that.”
Jindal sought to turn his record as governor to his advantage, citing a study by the libertarian Cato Institute that identified him as the only governor in the Republican field who cut state spending. But that, too, was a double-edged sword, as many in Louisiana, both Democrats and Republicans, blame Jindal’s smoke-and-mirrors approach to budgeting for the state’s fiscal problems.
“He certainly has his version of the facts of what happened in Louisiana,” Cook said, “but his version is not prevailing over the competing narrative that his governorship has absolutely not been successful.”
In any event, whatever Jindal tried didn’t work. And nowhere was that more evident than in his campaign fundraising.
In the third quarter of 2015, the most recent reporting period, Jindal’s presidential campaign committee raised less than $580,000. More telling is that Jindal’s federal filing listed a little more than 300 contributions, which, when donations by husbands and wives are combined, represents an even smaller base of supporters — one that’s not adequate to sustain a presidential run.
The Jindal campaign apparently leveraged money coming in outside the official committee shrewdly, exploiting the soft regulatory environment to tap a single-candidate independent political action committee and America Next to bolster his Iowa campaign. Those outside vehicles are not subject to the contribution limits applied to official campaign committees, and they won’t report activity for the second half of 2015 until January or later.
But there are financial hurdles those organizations face that don’t affect campaign committees. Jindal, upon his Baton Rouge return, acknowledged last week that a factor in his decision to close up shop was that the money well was running dry.
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