You know all those people who met Gov. Bobby Jindal early in his career and figured he could be president one day?
I have to confess. I used to be one of them.
Long before the governor’s all-wrong campaign for the Republican nomination, which he ended Tuesday after five futile months on the trail, Jindal showed the makings of someone who, even in defeat, could get an awful lot right.
In hindsight, people tend to remember Jindal’s first run for governor in 2003 as his only loss, and focus on the reasons, including his failure to answer runoff opponent Kathleen Blanco’s charges that he’d been a heartless bureaucrat when he ran the state health department, and his under-performance among north Louisiana evangelicals.
But after spending many days covering him on the campaign trail, what resonated for me was how much clicked, particularly for a first-time candidate making an audacious play for what is by no means an entry-level job. I saw it as he interacted with all kinds of voters in all kinds of settings, the good humor he showed and good will he engendered, and more than anything, the intelligence and optimism he projected.
Make no mistake, people met him, listened hard to his promises to build a modern and professional Louisiana that would no longer send its young to other states in search of opportunity, and liked what they heard. He was always deeply conservative, but he pitched himself more as a good, technocratic manager than an ideologue, and he made a point of keeping things respectful rather than personal. That’s how he drew support from across the aisle, and that’s how he emerged from the loss as a future governor in waiting.
Of course he was nakedly ambitious, but what politician isn’t? That’s not a fatal flaw.
Until, somehow, it becomes one.
The Jindal of 2003 would be unrecognizable to many Louisianians today, certainly to those who account for his 70 percent disapproval rating in the latest University of New Orleans poll. In tone, strategy and substance, this is a different politician, and a far lesser one.
Thanks to bad instincts, terrible advice or, more likely, both, Jindal abandoned much of what captured imaginations back then, all in a failed effort to woo the very conservative voters who make up a narrow slice of the country but a big part of the GOP presidential primary electorate.
Consider his journey on tax policy. Early in his first term, Jindal tried to block the Legislature from repealing the Stelly income tax increases, which had been adopted by popular vote as part of a progressive swap that also eliminated state sales tax on necessities. When lawmakers threatened to eliminate the income tax entirely, Jindal stepped in and struck a compromise to scale back the increase but keep the tax in place. So when he talks of signing the largest tax cut in Louisiana history, remember that he only did so to prevent further damage to the state’s financial stability. This was Jindal keeping his eye on the ball.
Contrast that with what happened in his second term, once his attention had shifted to building just the right Republican résumé to compete for president. First, he set out to eliminate state income taxes, despite his earlier, very reasonable reservations, but did such a bad job of convincing locals that it was a good idea that he was forced to withdraw the plan on the Legislature’s opening day. Then, this year, when the bottom dropped out of the budget, he proposed a convoluted plan featuring a ridiculous scheme to pass a credit nobody would get and a fee nobody would pay — all to meet the arbitrary demands of a national anti-tax group whose favor he sought. Lawmakers will be cleaning up the mess well into the next governor’s term.
Or take education. Jindal passed popular reforms, but in the process needlessly taunted teacher unions, another dog whistle to the right, as “the coalition of the status quo.” And while he was an early, strong backer of the Common Core education standards that many business conservatives support, he abandoned his position once he got wind of tea party opposition. Even worse, he ignored the substantive arguments over Common Core’s implementation and spent his time promoting a conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was out to take over Louisiana schools. Then there are social issues — abortion and birth control, evolution, guns, gay rights, take your pick — where he started choosing the most divisive, attention-grabbing language he could. That’s how a man who was initially poised to be a symbol of a modern, diverse America came to declare himself “tired of hyphenated Americans,” and contend that “immigration without assimilation is invasion.”
He still talked of growth and opportunity, just as he did in the old days. But his once sunny, inclusive and aspirational tone grew scolding, mean-spirited, and condescending. In a bid to capture the imagination of angry voters, he lost Louisianans, even many who agree with him on issues.
Of course, Jindal’s 44 and has plenty of time to reinvent himself. If he hopes for a comeback, though, he should go back and study the tape of his early days. He could probably use a reminder of what it was like to appeal to voters’ better instincts, not their worst impulses. Because, you know, it’s been a while.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @stephgracenola.