My first professional brush with presidential politics came in the year of the seven dwarfs.
It was 1987. I was a new college grad who’d landed at CBS News’ election unit just as the 1988 primaries were gearing up. And then, as now, the impending end of a two-term presidency had set up a free-for-all to replace him.
Then, as now, the president’s party had an obvious front-runner, with Vice President George Bush playing the role of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, although Bush did have to fight for the nomination harder than it looks like Clinton will.
Then, as now, the party on the outs was positively brimming with politicians who looked in the mirror and saw a president. Seven big-name Democrats — including not only eventual nominee Mike Dukakis but two future vice presidents, Al Gore and Joe Biden —- had lined up by the summer of ‘87, and the “seven dwarfs” shorthand reflected both how crowded the field was and how small the situation made them appear.
In hindsight, though, seven seems like such a reasonable number — particularly compared with this year’s Republican field, which looks like it could feature twice as many hopefuls, or more. This year, the working analogy is the clown car, the old-time comically overstuffed circus prop. And like the dwarf comparison, the term doubles as a commentary on the field’s collective perceived stature.
That’s a challenge for all the candidates, but it’s a particular problem for Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has shown no sign of breaking from the pack despite many months of trying. Just how big a problem it is became clear last week, when the rules of the first Republican primary debates were announced.
Fox News gives Jindal all sorts of air time, but as of now, it would bar him from its kick-off Aug. 6 debate. That’s because the conservative network, in an effort to keep the show manageable, plans to only invite the top 10 candidates, according to their average standing in the five most recent national polls. If the debate were held today, that means viewers would get to see not only major figures such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, but also fringe candidates such as Donald Trump. But Jindal, a two-term governor and former congressman who once was considered one of the GOP’s rising stars, would be relegated offstage.
CNN’s rules aren’t much better. For the second debate, it will allow the top eight or 10 candidates — again, according to an average of poll figures — to participate in the main event. But it will also broadcast a preliminary showdown among the second tier of candidates, which is where Jindal’s currently dismal numbers would put him.
Limiting access to the stage is hardly a new phenomenon. Four years ago, former Gov. Buddy Roemer and long-shot GOP candidate tweeted along with the televised debates after organizers denied him an invitation. Sure, Roemer was running a symbolic campaign to highlight the corrosive effect of big money in politics, but it was still a little disconcerting to see a former congressman and governor pushed aside in favor of non-starters such as Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain.
But the practical implications of a cut-off have rarely been as draconian as this.
Unlike Roemer, Jindal, who formed an exploratory committee last week and is expected to formally announce his intentions after the legislative session ends in mid-June, is pursuing a conventional candidacy. And he’s doing everything he can to make an impression, from speaking at cattle calls such as this weekend’s Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City, to penning op-eds in any publication that will take them, to making attention-grabbing policy moves at home, such as his executive order to defend the rights of private businesses that refuse to serve same-sex couples. The order, which immediately followed a House committee’s sound rejection of legislation on the topic, probably won’t make any legal difference. But boy, did it attract headlines.
So far, none of it’s been enough, and the news from debate organizers points to how much of an uphill climb Jindal faces. The primaries and caucuses don’t kick off until the new year, but the truth is that Jindal only has until early August to turn things around.
If not, he’ll be reduced to a clown who couldn’t even squeeze into the car. And it’s hard to think of a less presidential image than that.