Pretty much everyone who follows Louisiana politics knows that the state’s two leading officials, Gov. Bobby Jindal and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, aren’t allies. They’re not even “frenemies,” two people who don’t like each other but manage to work together toward common goals. Nope. The only apparent connections between these two are the R’s behind both their names, their strikingly similar résumés and their mutual disdain.
So Jindal’s instantly viral line in a news story chronicling their nonrelationship, published by the Washington-based National Journal, wasn’t so much news as juicy fodder for gossip. After years of absorbing Vitter’s indirect, carefully calibrated but always cutting jabs, Jindal finally swung back. Well, almost.
“If you turn [your recorder] off, I’ll tell you what I really think about him,” Jindal told the reporter, not saying anything but pretty much saying it all.
Still, as much fun as that was to read, the story doesn’t quite capture how the rivalry is playing out. Instead, it falls into the trap of false equivalency, suggesting the toxic relationship is a danger to both men as Jindal gears up for a probable presidential run and Vitter campaigns to replace him as governor.
Vitter’s absolutely a problem for Jindal, who hopes to impress national voters with his track record of leading Louisiana. It certainly won’t help to have the state’s other well-known Republican talking constantly about the fiscal mess the governor will be leaving behind and linking it explicitly to his decision to prioritize his national ambitions over the state’s long-term well-being.
The timing doesn’t help Jindal, either. Louisiana’s rare odd-numbered-year elections mean all that criticism will follow him to Iowa, New Hampshire and other places just as he’s trying to make his mark.
It’s hard to make a case that the reverse is true. The National Journal suggests that Vitter would get a boost from a Jindal endorsement, but any candidate who appears to be anointed would have to answer for Jindal’s record, not run against it, which is clearly the strategy all four declared hopefuls are taking.
If anything, the connection is a potential problem not for Vitter but for Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, a longtime member of the governor’s administration, whose recent campaign finance report drew notice for listing payouts to some of Jindal’s top campaign consultants.
Just listen to how the candidates are positioning themselves.
Since the day he announced his run for governor, Vitter has been stressing that this would be his last political job, an obvious contrast with Jindal’s larger ambitions. He’s backed that up by declaring himself open to things like accepting the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. Jindal has refused to do so in an apparent effort to preserve his viability among GOP primary voters. Vitter also initially endorsed the Common Core education standards that Jindal first embraced, although he later joined Jindal in denouncing them. Like his opponents, Vitter said he’d take a good, hard look at tax incentives and other giveaways contributing to next year’s $1.6 billion shortfall, even if it means raising revenue.
“Gov. Jindal should be doing this now,” Vitter said. “I’ll do it the minute I’m sworn in.”
Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, the state’s third top Republican and yet another Jindal and Vitter adversary, is stressing his record of bringing people together, an implicit swipe at Jindal’s my-way-or-the-highway approach. He’s also carved out a policy area where he stands out, strong support for Common Core, and is using it to basically accuse Jindal of playing politics with kids’ futures.
State Rep. John Bel Edwards, the only announced Democrat, links all three of his GOP foes to Jindal. In a recent radio interview with host Jim Engster, he called Dardenne “Jindal Lite,” Angelle “Jindal Incarnate” and Vitter “Jindal on Steroids.”
Even Angelle is distancing himself by stressing that Louisiana always comes first for him, something almost nobody believes is true of his former boss these days.
The truth is that Jindal had a lousy record of helping his endorsed candidates over the finish line even back when he was much more popular. And sure, he refused to back Vitter for re-election in 2010, his first race after he was connected with a Washington, D.C., prostitution ring, and Jindal didn’t exactly rush to his defense. But Vitter trounced Democrat Charlie Melancon without the governor’s nod.
This time around, Jindal is anything but Vitter’s problem. If anything, he’s a useful foil.