Gov. Bobby Jindal hit the nail on the head when he ended the most serious presidential campaign ever by a Louisianan in saying, “This is not my time.”
When Jindal burst onto the elective politics scene with his gubernatorial run in 2003, he already had an impressive résumé of government service despite his youth. An articulate, principled conservative, he surprised many by finishing first in the general election, overwhelming the Republican backed by the party establishment.
He narrowly lost the runoff to Democrat Kathleen Blanco. A year later, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and subsequently re-election, during which the state experienced its hurricane disasters and began recovery. Blanco’s mishandling of the disaster response and voter fatigue from her big-government policies led to a groundswell of support for Jindal, culminating in his election as governor in 2007.
Even as the nation slipped into a recession just as he took office, Louisiana remained somewhat buffered because recovery dollars artificially stimulated the state’s economy and produced robust state revenue. That also blunted the impact of President Barack Obama’s policies, which, starting in 2009, exacerbated the recession and eventually produced the nation’s weakest economic recovery in history. This put downward pressure on state tax receipts and caused increased demands for government spending. With the vanishing of the federal recovery money by the end of Jindal’s first term, fiscal pressures would haunt him from 2012 on.
Yet what if Jindal had first won in 2003 versus 2007? He would have guided the state much more ably than Blanco through the hurricane recovery. Reforms he prompted, including moves to reduce state spending and to improve education, would have happened sooner. Moreover, by avoiding the fiscal stresses that began late in his actual first term, he could have successfully pursued initiatives such as tax reform. Achievements like these would have vaulted him to the front of the weak 2008 and 2012 Republican presidential fields, where an accomplished, genuinely conservative GOP nominee would have won the office.
Instead, although he made major policy strides — particularly in the 2012-13 period — chronic fiscal problems marred his second term, subverting his more ambitious proposals and eroding his popularity. The perception of poor budgetary management weighed on his presidential bid for 2016.
The public mood had changed. In 2008 and 2012, Jindal could have positioned himself convincingly, given a record of fiscal rectitude and conservative reform, as an outsider — an agent of change for a Washington establishment increasingly set on growing government and too often accommodated by Republican moderates. Yet by 2015, disillusionment among the Republican electorate about its leaders had escalated, creating skepticism about candidates with political experience.
Thus, Jindal went from a potential standout to an also-ran in the strong 2016 derby. Had he defeated Blanco in 2003, likely he would have done well in the 2008 or 2012 presidential elections. Even if, as actually happened, he won office initially four years later, he still would have had a far better shot at capturing the White House in 2012 than in 2016. It’s not that Jindal’s time for presidential success lies in the future; it’s that it passed him already. He made it to the right place — just at the wrong time.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political of political science at LSU Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is the author of a blog about Louisiana politics (http://www.between-lines.com) and, when the Louisiana Legislature is in session, another about legislation (http://www.laleglog.com). Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate. Write to him at jeffsadowthe firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.