Not long ago, an interesting chart came across one of my news feeds. The headline asked: “What makes a presidential résumé?”
Published by the National Journal, the chart broke down next year’s presidential field by “primary occupation.” There were plenty of lawyers, of course, a handful of business people and doctors, plus a pastor, a documentary filmmaker/carpenter, and even a farrier (Mike Huckabee, Bernie Sanders and Lincoln Chafee, in case you were wondering).
What I was wondering when I first spotted it was how the magazine would characterize Gov. Bobby Jindal’s career.
The editors decided to go with “consulting,” which isn’t exactly inaccurate, because Jindal’s first professional job was with the giant consulting firm McKinsey & Co. On the other hand, it’s a little strange to suggest that’s his “primary occupation,” because he left the business when former Gov. Mike Foster picked him, at age 24, to be his secretary of health and hospitals. Jindal went on to hold a succession of big government jobs, from president of the University of Louisiana System to executive director of a federal Medicare reform commission to assistant health secretary under President George W. Bush.
So how to describe what Jindal really was before he ran for office? One word would be “bureaucrat.”
That term could apply to Jindal’s mother, Raj, as well. On the campaign trail, Jindal often describes how his parents came to Baton Rouge from India so Raj Jindal could attend graduate school at LSU and how his father found a job by cold-calling companies listed in the phone book. The part he skips is where his mother went to work for the state Department of Labor, later renamed the Louisiana Workforce Commission, built a long, successful career and remains on staff today.
To be honest, if someone asked me, I wouldn’t use that term to describe either one of them. It’s become too loaded. When people in politics talk about “bureaucrats,” they’re not simply describing government workers in a value-neutral way. They’re denigrating them, dismissing them as paper-pushing functionaries. Just think about all the people you know who work in government. Do any of them use the word to describe themselves?
But do you know who does use it, out there on the campaign trail? Bobby Jindal.
The first time I heard a Jindal aide tell an audience in New Hampshire that the governor had eliminated 30,000 “bureaucrats” from the state workforce, I cringed but figured it might just be an unfortunate turn of phrase from a tone-deaf operative. Once I heard Jindal himself say the same thing, then say it again, it became obvious that he’s doing it on purpose.
In effect, the line is meant not just to highlight that he’s reduced the size of government. It’s also to suggest that everything he cut was wasteful. And if that means throwing the people who did that work under the bus, well, so be it.
I asked Chuck McCutcheon, co-author of a fascinating look at political jargon titled “Dog Whistles, Walk-Balks and Washington Handshakes,” whether Jindal’s use of the term amounted to a dog whistle, which the book defines as “political messaging using coded language that seems to mean one thing to the general population, but which to a targeted subgroup means something else entirely.”
He said it’s almost too on the nose for that.
“Most dog whistles are more subtle than this,” McCutcheon said. “It’s less a dog whistle and more of a naked pitch to the anti-government crowd. ... ‘Bureaucrat’ is definitely a pejorative word for government employee. It’s something that demeans government workers and is definitely not their preferred term.”
It’s also particularly misleading the way the Jindal campaign is using it. While the state’s workforce today is significantly smaller than it was when he took office, some of those jobs were with the state hospitals that he privatized. That means many of the former employees in question are not desk jockeys but health care workers — and that government still indirectly pays their salaries.
Not that there’s anything wrong with working a more traditional public sector job.
Sure, most organizations, whether public or private, have some people who don’t pull their weight. But they also have plenty who show up every day, work hard and get the job done. State government is no different.
And do you know who, if anyone, should know that from personal experience? Bobby Jindal.