Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal addresses attendees at the Road to Majority conference in June. (Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Update: Gov. Jindal has officially announced his candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
When I traveled to Baton Rouge in November 2008 to report and write an early national profile of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the world was a very different place — particularly for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Barack Obama had just been elected president. America was still swooning. And Jindal, who had been in office for less than a year at that point, was riding nearly as high as his Democratic counterpart from Chicago.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had recently referred to Jindal as “the most transformative young governor in America.” Radio host Rush Limbaugh had taken to calling him “the next Ronald Reagan.” GOP White House nominee John McCain had already eyed Jindal as a running mate, and earlier that month, Steve Schmidt, McCain’s chief strategist, had told the Washington Post that “the question is not whether he’ll be president, but when he’ll be president — because he will be elected someday.”
Nearly seven years have passed since I visited Jindal in Louisiana. On Wednesday, during an event titled “Geaux Bobby: A Special Announcement from Governor Bobby Jindal” at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner, just outside New Orleans, Jindal will finally confirm what his famous Republican fans prophesied way back when: He’s running for president.
His timing couldn’t be worse.
To say that Jindal is “barely registering” in the latest 2016 polls would be an overstatement. According to RealClear Politics, he currently averages 0.8 percent support among Republican primary voters, placing him dead last among the 15 contenders typically considered serious enough to merit pollsters’ attention. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham outpolls Jindal. So does Ohio Gov. John Kasich. And former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. And former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey pegged Jindal’s support at zero percent.
His standing at home in Louisiana is even shakier. In May, Jindal’s job-approval rating hit “an all-time low” of 31.8 percent; his disapproval rating, meanwhile, soared to a record high of 64.7 percent. A survey released last week showed that if the 2016 presidential election were held today, Jindal’s fellow Louisianans, who aren’t known for their liberalism, would choose Democrat Hillary Clinton over their current governor. Even President Obama, who lost Louisiana by 17 percentage points in 2012, is more popular than Jindal in the Pelican State. As the Washington Post recently put it, “Bobby Jindal is at the nadir of his political career.”
What happened? Why hasn’t Jindal become the next Reagan — or, as my profile posited, “the GOP’s Obama”? On the eve of the governor’s big announcement, I revisited my 2008 reporting in an attempt to recall what initially made him such an exciting political prospect. (Portions of this piece are adapted from that profile.) I also reviewed his record over the subsequent six-plus years.
What I found was a story of real promise — promise that many in Louisiana say he has squandered.
Jindal delivers the Republican Party’s official response to President Barack Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress in 2009. (Photo: AP)
When national pundits talk about Jindal, to the degree they deign to discuss him at all, they tend to attribute his downfall to a single event: his amateurish response to Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address. The speech, as Vox wrote this week, “was supposed to be [Jindal’s] big political ‘coming out’; instead the governor wound up becoming “the object of bipartisan ridicule” thanks to his Kenneth-the-Page-like delivery.
An embarrassing SOTU response, however, isn’t necessarily a career-killer. Bill Clinton eventually recovered from his stilted 1985 performance, and Sen. Marco Rubio, who botched the Republican rebuttal more recently than Jindal, is now one of the leaders of the GOP pack.
The problem for Jindal, says Pearson Cross, a University of Louisiana political science professor who is currently working on a book about the governor, isn’t how the national electorate perceives him. It’s how his political ambitions have distorted his policy priorities, and how those policies, in turn, have affected his home state.
“Jindal’s fiscal policy has created some real hard times here,” Cross explains. “The feeling is that he has governed to please people outside Louisiana — that we’ve become an afterthought.”
The Jindal I encountered in 2008 aspired to be seen as a rational, responsive pragmatist. The son of Indian-born engineers — his mother, Raj, was three months pregnant with him when she arrived in America to study nuclear physics — Jindal graduated from Brown with a biology degree, won a Rhodes scholarship, and went on to explore health policy at Oxford. As a college intern for Rep. Jim McCrery, he demanded more "substantive” work, then surprised McCrery with a thick manuscript on Medicare in two weeks flat; five years later, he called and asked that McCrery recommend him to incoming Gov. Mike Foster for secretary of health and hospitals.
“How about deputy secretary?” McCrery inquired.
“No,” the 24-year-old Jindal replied.
He got the interview — and the job.
As a rookie governor, Jindal would constantly emphasize his wonky roots on the stump, touting himself as both the embodiment and the architect of a “New Louisiana.” I got to see him hold court at City Hall in Breaux Bridge, the heart of Cajun country. In 2003, he recalled, he returned to Baton Rouge from Washington, D.C., and vowed, if elected, to reverse Louisiana’s brain drain by spurring growth and combating the state’s storied corruption. Attacked as a bloodless bureaucrat, Jindal, then 32, lost to Democrat Kathleen Blanco. But when Blanco blew the response to Hurricane Katrina, voters developed buyers’ remorse. In the next election, they chose the competent wunderkind by a 37 percent margin.
Jindal gives his wife, Supriya, a kiss after becoming Louisiana’s governor in 2007. Supriya holds son Shaan Robert. (Photo: Bill Haber/AP)
After assuming office in January 2008, an aggressive Jindal immediately convened three special sessions of the state Legislature to implement his vision. Ten months later in Breaux Bridge, he was rattling off an impressive list of accomplishments: ethics reforms that catapulted low-ranking Louisiana to the top of key watchdog lists; six tax cuts worth more than $500 million; a major workplace-development program; and a new proposal to control Medicaid costs and improve outcomes by steering hundreds of thousands of low-income Louisianans into managed-care plans.
Even then, no one considered Jindal a centrist. A devout convert to Catholicism, he had already passed a bill allowing public schools to teach intelligent design alongside evolution, and he’d been clear about his “100 percent” opposition to abortion “without exceptions” for rape, incest, or the mother’s health.
(Asked last weekend whether South Carolina should stop flying the Confederate flag, Jindal said, “Look, we’ll let the states decide that.” The governor isn’t seeking to have the flag stripped from a Louisiana-issued license plate for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, either.)
But satisfying the right with his personal convictions freed Jindal up to focus on swaying the center — which he did, at least at first, by unleashing a flurry of less controversial “solutions” designed to bolster his reputation as Obama-esque postpartisan.
“This balancing act,” I concluded, “is the secret of Jindal’s success and, it seems, his nascent national strategy.” (He would soon visit Iowa for the first time.)
Jindal acknowledged as much. “Even when [voters] don’t agree with you on everything,“ he told me, "if they see that you’ve got relevant solutions on the things they care most about, they’ll support you.”
At the time, his approval rating stood at 70 percent.
What’s striking about Jindal’s post-2008 career is the degree to which he has abandoned his own advice about “relevant solutions” to the problems voters “care most about” — and the degree to which those same voters have stopped supporting him because of it.
“He has gone on to govern like an unflinching ideologue,” says Cross. “And that’s tainted his reputation here at home.”
Jindal hasn’t betrayed his wonky instincts. He’s simply put his wonkiness to different use by devising increasingly convoluted — and, for his constituents, increasingly consequential — ways to avoid raising revenue in an increasingly cash-strapped Louisiana.
Sen. John McCain with Jindal in 2008 as New Orleans struggled to recover from Hurricane Katrina. (Photo: Bill Haber/AP)
When Jindal took office in 2008, he billed himself as a fiscal conservative allergic to budget gimmicks, comparing them to “using your credit card to pay your mortgage.”
But even before I visited late that year, the governor had begun to change course. In 2002, Louisiana voters approved a fairly progressive state constitutional amendment, known as the Stelly Plan, that lowered sales taxes on groceries and utility bills and raised state income taxes instead. Under pressure from the Legislature, Jindal was reluctant at first to reverse the Stelly Plan’s income-tax hikes because he was worried that the loss of revenue would force the state to balance its budget by cutting services, raiding trust funds, and making unsustainable one-time patches.
“We need to maintain that fiscal discipline,” Jindal said at the time.
But at the last minute, Jindal caved, and when I saw him in Breaux Bridge, he was proudly claiming the resulting $300 million income-tax cut as his own.
Unfortunately for Louisiana, Jindal’s initial predictions soon came true. The state was flush with cash at the start of the Jindal era; oil prices were high, insulating the local economy from the effects of the Great Recession, and federal recovery money was still flowing through the system three years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But the disaster funds soon dried up. Oil prices fell. And with the Stelly revenue gone, what had been a $1 billion surplus was replaced with a series of persistent, growing deficits.
To balance the budget — a constitutional requirement — most governors in similar circumstances would have sought out new sources of revenue. But Jindal refused. During his first run for governor, Jindal had signed anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist’s famous pledge, which prohibited Jindal from increasing the marginal income tax rate or reducing tax deductions and credits “unless matched dollar for dollar” by additional tax cuts.
And so Jindal tried everything else he could think of, leading some to conclude that he was “sacking his own state,” as American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher wrote earlier this year, “to preserve his viability as a Republican presidential candidate — specifically, so he can say that he never raised taxes, but rather cut them.”
“Jindal scraped together what he could from all sorts of funds: railroad crossing safety, artificial reef construction, housing programs and the blind,” the AP reported. “He pieced together money from one-time legal settlements and property sales, using it to pay for continuing programs.”
“Trust funds for infrastructure and low-income older adults have been sapped, buildings sold, tax amnesties repeatedly declared, legal settlements spent and reserves drained,” added the New York Times.
At the same time, Jindal opposed even the mildest attempts, many of them put forward by his Republican colleagues in the Legislature, to deal with Louisiana’s declining revenues. In 2011, Jindal fought tooth and nail against extending a temporary four-cent levy on the state’s cigarette tax, then the third lowest in the nation. His reasoning? Stopping a tax rate from automatically falling is the same thing as raising a tax. And when GOP lawmakers passed a bill that would have required the state merely to calculate how much it was spending each year on tax credits and exemptions for businesses, Jindal vetoed it on the grounds that it could “create uncertainty about the state’s commitment to job creation and economic development.”
In fact, it wasn’t until earlier this month, with Louisiana facing a dire $1.6 billion budget shortfall, that Jindal finally agreed to raise revenue. But even then, he “demanded the budget be designed in such a way that [Norquist] wouldn’t count it as a tax hike.” Jindal’s solution was almost comical: to counteract the Legislature’s new cigarette taxes and limits on business subsidies, he created a $350 million “fee” on higher-education students while at the same time creating a “tax credit” that would exempt the same students from paying that $350 million.
“Why would Jindal do such a seemingly pointless thing?” Vox inquired. “Because the new ‘fee’ apparently does not count as a tax increase under the Norquist pledge, but the new ‘tax credit’ counts as a tax cut.”
Even Jindal’s fellow conservatives were fed up.
“Everyone knows it’s nonsense,” said State Treasurer John Kennedy, a Republican.
“Stinky, yucky stuff,” added Republican Rep. Darrell Ourso.
(In interviews, Jindal blames Louisiana’s budget woes on the drop in oil prices. But a recent Associated Press analysis determined that “more than $1 billion of the [$1.6 billion] shortfall on the horizon for the fiscal year that begins July 1 can be tied to Jindal’s refusal to match the state’s spending to its yearly revenue over his two terms in office.”)
Jindal speaks with employees in the oil and gas industry about Obama’s moratorium on deep-water drilling in Port Fourchon, La. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty)
Jindal’s patchwork fiscal maneuvering has had real consequences for his constituents. The state’s Medicaid Trust Fund for the Elderly has been depleted by $800 million. Development incentives are down $450 million. Louisiana’s rainy day fund has dropped from $730 million to $460 million. Voters don’t care about Grover Norquist, but they do care about things that personally affect their lives. They care that Louisiana now taxes the middle class at a higher rate than it taxes the wealthy. They care that the cost of the state’s six biggest tax giveaways to business has ballooned by $650 million under Jindal, who at the same time has slashed state funding for colleges and universities by almost the same amount. They care that students are now paying much higher tuition as a result. They care that funding for the state’s hospitals has been cut to the bone. And they care that 30,000 government workers — many of them teachers, university employees, and health-care providers — have lost their state jobs.
Louisianans also suspect that Jindal has been selling them short to improve his chances at the Republican presidential nomination. He has flip-flopped on Common Core. He has made a big show of protecting those who oppose same-sex marriage. And he spent 165 days out of state in 2014 — up from 74 in 2013.
“How long must we, the citizens of the state of Louisiana, have to cater to [Jindal’s] fantasies?” Joseph V. Ricapito, a retired educator, recently wrote in a letter to The Advocate.
Back in 2008, I witnessed an interesting exchange between Jindal, then stumping in Longville (population: 2,462), and Clyde Dennis, a burly 65-year-old justice of the peace.
“Tell me about your national aspirations,“ Dennis said, rising from his chair. "Keep hearing your name on TV and all that kind of stuff. We want to keep you in state here. Don’t want you to go to D.C.”
Having fielded the question before, the rising star was ready with his answer. It included a bit of advice that Jindal himself would soon seem to forget.
Jindal addresses the Louisiana Legislature in Baton Rouge. (Photo: Gerald Herbert/Pool/AP)
“I’ve got the job that I want,” the governor said. “I told y'all a year ago that we’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change our state. I want to be a part of that. And if you let me, I’m going to run for re-election. I’m not running for president. I think the American people are tired of politics, they’re tired of elections, they’re tired of campaigns.
“Anybody out there running for president four years from now, eight years from now, they’re not helping themselves,” Jindal added. “And they’re sure not helping their country.”