Well into Gov. Bobby Jindal’s lengthy lunch address to the Press Club of Baton Rouge last week, the governor graciously, predictably brushed aside a question about former presidential contender John McCain’s recent, nationally televised shout-out to both Jindal and New Jersey’s Chris Christie as potential future GOP candidates.
Indeed, Jindal smiled most of his way through the rare, hour-plus give-and-take with the capital press corps. Maybe that was because he was announcing good news, his first trade mission abroad as governor, or because he didn’t have to defend his choices in his yet-to-be-released budget.
Or perhaps it had something to do with the riveting story that was unfolding 1,100 miles away in Trenton, N.J., where Christie, one of his chief rivals for national Republican prominence, wasn’t having nearly as nice a day. Instead, Christie was in full damage-control mode amid revelations that his top staffers and appointees had intentionally caused an hourslong traffic jam out of political revenge.
Jindal never mentioned the burgeoning George Washington Bridge scandal, but don’t believe for a moment he wasn’t following it.
The results of Jindal’s own barely veiled campaign to gain national traction have been uneven at best, in part because his message has been so muddled. Is he the smart, next-generation wonk who decries his peers for turning the GOP into the “stupid party” or the populist champion of the distinctly retro world view espoused by “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson? Is his signature issue taxes or health care, private school vouchers with few strings or education accountability for all? Depends on what seems to sell on any given day.
But presidential politics is a long game. Jindal’s been up and he’s been down but so have his potential rivals for the party’s affection. Just a few months ago, Christie was being hailed as a straight-talking uniter who could win big even in a largely Democratic state. Now he’s fighting for his political life and desperately fending off allegations that he’s a vindictive jerk who, at best, sent signals that his people should punish ordinary people for their elected officials’ alleged transgressions against the governor. If evidence emerges that he knew what they were up to, which he insists he didn’t, it could be the end.
And Christie’s far from the only other politician eyeing the big prize.
Up in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker is preparing to launch his own version of the sort of tax overhaul Jindal tried last year. One option on the table is the complete elimination of state income tax. But Walker, who admitted to local reporters he watched and learned from Jindal’s heavy-handed, my-way-or-the-highway approach, is also open to less radical ideas and says he won’t make his move without first gauging public support. If he plays his cards right, he could end up with the anti-tax trophy Jindal tried, and failed, to take home.
Others keep making news as well. Former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan was quiet for a while but has recently scored points for negotiating an actual bipartisan congressional budget deal.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, like Jindal before him, flubbed a televised response to a major presidential address, but he, too, is still trying to make headlines, most recently by seizing on the War on Poverty’s 50th anniversary. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is jockeying for headlines, too; how else to explain his effort to renounce that embarrassing Canadian half of his dual citizenship?
So despite few encouraging signs from early national polls, expect Jindal to spend the homestretch of his second term trying to stay in the mix. In addition to his trade mission to Asia, he recently spoke in Texas and has a speech scheduled in Minnesota. His think tank, based conspicuously in Washington instead of Baton Rouge, is getting off the ground; look for it to start strategically weighing in on major issues of the day.
As McCain’s nod suggests, Jindal’s very much part of the club. And every time one member has a good day, or a bad one, you just know the others are watching.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.