If Bobby Jindal threads the needle just right, the Louisiana governor can get elected president in 2016.
This might seem to conflict with my column just two weeks ago opining that Jindal should not run. It doesn’t. The better advice for Jindal remains that he not run; Louisiana also would be better off (in the short term) if he doesn’t.
But to say Jindal, by running, has more chance to damage his career than to succeed in the race is not to say he lacks all presidential viability. His potential 2016 path to the White House is difficult — indeed, much more difficult than the chance he passed up in 2012, when a serious effort was made by national conservatives to clear a route for him — but it’s not impossible.
Here’s how. First, take some chances. Perhaps promote a policy initiative so distinctive that it immediately dominates the national intra-party discussion. Perhaps, on a less-than-innovative subject, make a politically courageous stand against the grain — something as noteworthy as Rand Paul being nice to Cuba but with more sense and class than Paul showed — in a way that sets him apart. Be bold.
Second, Jindal needs to spend more time, not less, in Louisiana during the first part of the year. Louisiana faces serious budget and legal challenges, and if he lets them fester, the national media — liberal and conservative alike — will rip him to shreds the minute he shows the slightest bit of national traction. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker has shown that problem-solving at home, in tough circumstances, will strengthen rather than enervate someone’s national political muscle.
Third, when the legislative session is over (and only when the legislative session is over: see above), Jindal should choose either Iowa or New Hampshire, but not both, to “camp out” in for months at a time. Both states reward very personal, retail politics, again and again and again. (See: Rick Santorum, 2012, Iowa; John McCain 2008, New Hampshire et cetera).
Fourth, distinguish himself — absolutely shine — in debates. Republicans have relimited the number of debates in the 2016 cycle, so each individual debate will be more important than any of the endless stream of contests in 2012. Jindal is a natural at exhibiting encyclopedic command of issues. If he can add in a few memorable, personality-filled zingers to his impressiveness on policy, he could steal the show and emerge from the pack much like Herman Cain in 2012 — except with broader and deeper substance than Cain and without the baggage.
Fifth, stay positive. This may be counterintuitive, after Mitt Romney won the nomination by running two of the most ruthlessly negative primary-season campaigns in memory. But with a plethora of likely candidates, it’s often best to play the smart, solutions-oriented “good guy” and let the others all pummel one another. Likability matters — and it’s easier to be likable if you’re not a mass of blood, bruises and chipped-tooth snarls.
Even if Jindal does all these things, he needs luck, especially in terms of who runs and who doesn’t. If Jeb Bush, Romney and Chris Christie all run, they’ll split the resources of the coastal elites and the ballots of more moderate voters. That would help Jindal by making it more difficult for any one of them to win primary pluralities. If Mike Pence, of Indiana, does not run, that helps Jindal by eliminating a contender for the “policy-wonk governor” spot in the field. If both Santorum and Mike Huckabee run and split the social-conservative-first crowd without either one gaining broader support, Jindal could gain conservative-movement traction as the only electable “full-spectrum” conservative who can pick up the pieces from the Santorum-Huckabee intramural tussle and unite the right against, say, Bush.
Even then, though, if Walker and/or Rick Perry runs, Jindal won’t be the only contender for the “unite-the-right” role.
Achieving all this would be a daunting task for Jindal. The only other time in memory somebody succeeded in a similar “out of the pack” tightrope walk was not a Republican but Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976. The rarity of the Carter example shows that Jindal’s odds are long. The fact that Carter became president shows those odds are not impossible.
New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and he blogs at blogs.theadvocate.com/quin-essential.