Gov. Bobby Jindal obviously wants to be president. But at age 43, Jindal is young enough, by far, to bide his time. He should do so, for multiple reasons.
First and most important, Jindal has unfinished business in Louisiana. The state budget is a mess. The battles over Common Core and a major wetlands lawsuit remain unresolved, and both will require not just gubernatorial dictates but a governor’s active diplomacy to resolve. The state continues to fight legal battles to preserve its school choice programs and tenure reforms, while implementation thereof remains incomplete.
I have argued on these pages that Jindal has been a much better governor than many Louisianans now believe: His privatization of management of the charity hospital system will be a long-term boon for the state; his education reforms are wonderful; his aggressive business recruitment has been superb; the state’s bond rating has improved and its economy is strong; and his crisis management (hurricanes, oil spill) has been exemplary. But if he leaves too many loose ends — and frayed ends — his fellow presidential candidates will use the evidence to tie his campaign in knots.
Second, speaking of fellow candidates, the 2016 Republican field looks to be the deepest in 36 years, with talented and accomplished competitors aplenty. At the start of campaigning, Jindal won’t be the only current governor running; as many as five others will be, with several having higher profiles and more prominent political victories. He won’t be the only “policy wonk”; he won’t be the only one who achieved education reforms; he won’t be the only one who cut taxes. He won’t be the only “full spectrum conservative” in the race; he will trail at least some others in fundraising prowess; he’ll badly trail others in grass-roots organization. In short, Jindal will have difficulty emerging from the crowd and gaining traction.
And while a stronger-than-expected race for a presidential nomination has been known to be the basis for later runs, there is nothing more deadly to presidential ambitions than an attempt that dies weakly in the cradle.
Third, Jindal will hurt, not help, his vice-presidential prospects if he runs. Only twice in half a century has a losing candidate for the nomination been selected as running mate. Presidential nominees tend to rule out weak also-rans who just demonstrated little vote-gaining power. (The one exception was Joe Biden, chosen by Barack Obama almost certainly because Biden wouldn’t compete with Obama’s star power). And nominees rule out those who did come close because there’s usually too much bad blood. (The one exception: Ronald Reagan, who chose the elder George Bush at the last minute, by default, only when a mega-ticket with former president Gerald Ford fell through.)
It remains statistically true that the best way to become president is to have been vice president. In all likelihood, if Jindal does not run for the nomination (and thus doesn’t burn bridges), he and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez will be the two finalists for veep.
Fourth, if he’s not veep but a Republican wins the White House, Jindal will be a shoe-in for a top cabinet spot (again, only if he hasn’t burned bridges by running in a cut-throat campaign). He’ll be a natural for Health and Human Services. And since a GOP president and Congress likely will repeal and replace Obamacare in their first year, he’ll get credit for implementing the new system. Just about any implementation will look good by comparison with Kathleen Sebelius’ hash of Obamacare.
Three years at HHS, followed by, say three at Homeland Security — just in time to successfully implement truly conservative immigration improvements (which will be the Year Three initiative of a Republican president), while burnishing his credentials on security matters — will make him a national, household name.
Nothing is worse for presidential ambitions than a campaign that fizzles. But serving as veep or a high-profile department chief can give Jindal some sizzle. Sizzle enough, indeed, for a 2024 campaign, when he’ll still be just 53 — younger, even then, than both Bushes, Reagan, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Eisenhower and Truman were when they first took the presidential oath.
Sometimes the best way to realize ambition is to marinate it with discretion.
New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and he blogs at blogs. theadvocate.com/quin-essential.