Stephanie Grace: Jindal’s push to raise national profile hit, miss

So Gov. Bobby Jindal says he might run for president.

In other news, the sky is blue, Monday follows Sunday, and people around here are kind of into football.

But seriously, the governor’s admission to the Washington-based website Politico that “I don’t know if I’m going to run for president or not” was basically his first public acknowledgement of his entirely obvious ambition. Now that it’s finally, officially on the table, this seems a good time for a status update.

The story’s news peg, Jindal’s announcement that he’s launched a nonprofit aimed at helping the Republican party win the “war of ideas,” is actually a pretty major move towards establishing a national profile. Yet it’s also just another incremental step along the path Jindal’s been following ever since he won re-election, with mixed results.

In the afterglow of his decisive 2011 victory, the governor made two big splashes. Here at home, he passed a massive education package to, among other things, essentially replace old-fashioned teacher tenure with a merit-based system, expand educational choice and promote the use of private school vouchers. He also traveled to Iowa to campaign for his presidential primary choice, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and wound up making a better impression than the bumbling candidate did.

Not all his efforts bore fruit.

If Jindal’s stumping for Perry was a hit, his subsequent campaign forays for eventual nominee Mitt Romney were a wash.

He earned positive press for a funny speech at the Gridiron Club — where, among other things, he joked about his Indian heritage; his dreadful, nationally televised response to President Barack Obama’s first address to Congress; and indirectly, to U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s prostitution problems. But speeches at other high-profile events, where he sometimes recycled lines, drew uneven reviews.

He got a bump when, after the Republicans lost the presidency and some winnable Senate seats, he called on the GOP to stop being the “stupid” party. But his critique of the Romney campaign also drew derisive, unattributed sniping from insiders who accused him of having openly campaigned for the vice-presidential nod.

In Baton Rouge, Jindal’s attempted follow-up to the education package, a wholesale abandonment of state income taxes in exchange for a higher sales tax, was a bust. He utterly failed to sell the idea, which is popular with some national conservative groups, and in the process, he alienated lawmakers who, after backing the more controversial elements of the education initiative, didn’t want to go out on a limb again.

Most recently, Jindal has used his post as chairman of the Republican Governors Association to draw a sharp contrast between Washington and states, particularly those with GOP leaders like him.

While the website for Jindal’s new nonprofit, America Next, pitches a focus on as-yet unspecified ideas instead of elections, it fits right in to Jindal’s ongoing campaign for national recognition. His first staff member, executive director Jill Neunaber, is a veteran of the Romney campaign and is fresh off a losing Senate race in Massachusetts. While Jindal’s mission statement decries the influence of the “political consultant class” that coaches candidates to go after their opponents rather than offering specifics that might invite attacks, his own longtime consultant, Curt Anderson, is heavily involved.

Despite the clear political overtones, Jindal said last week that the focus will be on policy. He promises not just slogans but detailed proposals, to be outlined in speeches, congressional testimony and written guides. This is a continuation of his recent practice of placing opinion pieces in all manner of publications, and seeing what sticks.

Education is a likely topic; Jindal’s been getting a lot of mileage out of his reform package in general, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s desegregation lawsuit against his voucher program in particular. The politics surrounding Common Core, the public school education standards that Jindal supported from the start, have turned tricky, particularly among some conservative groups. That’s a topic he probably won’t bring up any time soon.

On health care, Jindal tried in one early op-ed to identify a compromise over the controversial mandated birth control coverage portion of Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The idea got no traction. He’s focused more lately on his general disapproval of the health care law and his refusal to accept federal money to expand Medicaid, which could have helped some 400,000 low-income Louisiana residents access health coverage.

If he’s got a good alternative in mind for helping those people, national audiences would probably love to hear about it. And so, by the way, would his constituents at home.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.