In January 2013, with his party still in the midst of an extended post-election wake, Bobby Jindal attempted to establish himself as a voice of reason in the GOP. At the Republican National Committee’s winter meetings, Jindal gave a speech on how the party could “recalibrate the compass of conservatism” and “win the argument” with the electorate. Though the speech wasn’t high on specifics, Jindal said the party needed to be more forward looking, more appealing to new groups of voters, and, in a headline-grabbing line, had to “stop being the stupid party.” At the time, it seemed like a savvy political move, as Jindal tried to position himself as an outside-the-Beltway truth-teller with ideas on how to reinvigorate a party that has lost five of the last six popular votes in presidential elections. Unfortunately for Jindal, it didn’t work out as planned, and since then he’s had to forage aimlessly on the right-wing of his party for some shred of conservative identity not yet claimed by another candidate. He hasn’t found it yet, but Jindal is still chasing his ambition.
As other candidates have filled out the first and second tier of GOP presidential candidates, Jindal has been eagerly jostling for relevance. His apparent strategy in recent months has been to dive into whatever controversy presents itself and pretend he’s been there the whole time. In January, for example, a well-bleached “terrorism analyst” named Steve Emerson appeared on Fox News to discuss the existence of so-called “no-go zones” in England and France, claiming that there were areas that essentially operated under Sharia law and were outside governmental control. Residents of Birmingham, England, a city that is 22 percent Muslim, were surely surprised to learn that their city was “totally Muslim” and inaccessible to non-Muslims. Unsurprisingly, Emerson’s remarks, lacking any foundation in reality, produced a strong reaction. Prime Minister David Cameron said Emerson was “clearly a complete idiot”, and the city of Paris decided to eventually pursue legal action against Fox.
Not wanting to miss a chance to stir the pot, Jindal went to London nine days later (after Fox apologized for the report) and delivered a speech in which he claimed Europe was riddled with “no-go zones” where Muslims are implementing Sharia law “without regard for the laws of the democratic countries” they live in. Although it’s doubtful that Jindal, a former Rhodes scholar who studied in Oxford, seriously believes that swaths of Europe are operating under Sharia law, he refused to back down, even when he encountered pushback from Fox News on his claim. Eager to cash in on a GOP scandal that had already passed him by, Jindal stuck to his guns.
Jindal had a similar but even more ridiculous performance after Republican senators penned a controversial letter to the leaders of Iran. Since Jindal is not a member of the Senate, he was obviously not a signatory to the letter (although he did later add his name to it). That didn’t stop him from making the absurd suggestion that the whole idea had originated with him, claiming that it had been “something we’ve been pushing for a while.” Jindal also noted that Tom Cotton had been in the audience at an AEI event where Jindal had allegedly discussed the idea. When asked if he was implying that Cotton had stolen his idea, Jindal magnanimously said there was “no pride of authorship” for the letter he had neither written nor signed, and that he hoped “a lot of people came to the same conclusion at the same time on their own.”
The governor has made predictable lurches to the right on other matters as well. He strongly defended Rudy Giuliani after the former mayor questioned the President’s patriotism and told the audience that Obama “wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up.” He is also one of the most vociferous critics of Common Core, despite the fact that he previously supported the law and helped implement it in Louisiana. When questioned about his former support, Jindal claimed that some sort of “bait and switch” had occurred and that Common Core had since become an unconstitutional affront to the 10th Amendment. Needless to say, the growing conservative opposition to Common Core had nothing to do with his sudden evolution.
Even if Jindal’s eager attempts to join every controversy are successful, the governor has deep political problems back home that may well sink his nascent campaign. Although Jindal came in to office with a budget surplus, his state is now facing a $1.6 billion deficit and one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country. Although the recession and plummeting oil prices bear some of the blame for the state’s poor economy, Jindals’s fiscal policies have been criticized by members of both parties. The governor has used budget cuts and accounting tricks to gloss over the issue, but a real solution may require the kind of tough choices (meaning revenue increases) that won’t play well in a GOP primary debate.
With the GOP pool of contenders already well stocked, Jindal’s failure to gain any traction isn’t exactly roiling the race. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, he was barely ahead of Lindsey Graham and tied with “Wouldn’t vote.” However, his ineptitude and inability to settle on any particular political identity is likely a disappointment to Republicans who once saw him as a rising star in the party (although for some donors and insiders that star may have fallen after the Kenneth the Page speech). For the time being, however, Jindal’s sputtering campaign remains mired in Louisiana’s red ink and, in spite of his best efforts, disappointingly uncontroversial.
Update on Jindal’s still unnoticed presidential campaign (4/2): Amidst the uproar over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), Jindal is once again eagerly chasing after the scandal and casually insisting that he was more or less responsible for the whole thing. From the Washington Post: “An email from top Jindal adviser Timmy Teepell this morning touted the fact that “Governor Jindal will do three radio interviews today to talk about the fight for religious liberty” and noted, “Governor Jindal was one of the first potential 2016 candidates to talk about the fight for religious liberty when he gave a speech at The Reagan Library in February of 2014. A copy of the speech can be found here.”