Quin Hillyer: Jindal shows clear national appeal

Associated Press photo by SUSAN WALSH -- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in National Harbor, Md. Thursday marks the first day of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which brings together prospective presidential candidates, conservative opinion leaders and tea party activists from coast to coast. Show caption
Associated Press photo by SUSAN WALSH -- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in National Harbor, Md. Thursday marks the first day of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which brings together prospective presidential candidates, conservative opinion leaders and tea party activists from coast to coast.

A speech by Gov. Bobby Jindal in Mobile, Ala., Thursday night showed why some national conservative audiences are fitting him for a presidential mantle.

The Mobile speech, sponsored by the Alabama Policy Institute, was just one of a flurry of Jindal out-of-state appearances and column submissions obviously intended to raise his national profile even as his home-state popularity noticeably lags.

Louisiana readers know the litany of complaints: Jindal is too ambitious. He’s too inaccessible. His administration is high-handed. But that’s not what Republicans nationally see. And it might be that the rest of America sees in Jindal something Louisianians, too, should value.

There’s a marked disconnect, unusual in American politics, between Jindal’s Louisiana approval numbers — consistently below 50 percent for the past year — and his state’s economic performance. The unemployment rate of just 4.9 percent is, historically, superbly low, and among America’s best. Louisiana’s credit rating has been hiked six times since Jindal took office, and Standard & Poor’s gives the state the highest possible score for fiscal management. Louisiana’s gross domestic product has outpaced national growth by almost 50 percent.

National audiences see those and many other strong numbers, and marvel. National conservatives see Jindal’s school-choice revolution and rejoice. And while Louisiana critics note that Jindal’s vaunted first-term ethics reforms contained significant loopholes, most outside observers admire the strong steps against graft in a state long notorious for corruption. Loopholes or no loopholes, the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity rated the new legislative financial disclosure rules as the nation’s best.

Hence, Jindal stands high in esteem among conservatives nationally — and, just recently, his presidential star, which had dimmed for a while, is rebrightening.

“He is either near the bottom of the first tier [of presidential contenders] or the very top of the second tier,” said Reagan biographer Craig Shirley, a 40-year veteran of the national conservative movement. “You really don’t find anybody in the conservative movement with anything but good things to say about him. In fact, he’s just about the only one I know of who doesn’t have a ‘rap’ against him of at least one sort or another.”

Shirley said Jindal hasn’t fully caught fir, but that, of all the potential candidates, Louisiana’s governor possesses the most “slack resources” — in other words, strengths readily available that haven’t yet been fully presented to the public. “His potential is all upward,” Shirley said.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and chairman of a famous, weekly conservative conclave, is even more bullish.

“Jindal is one of just six people who obviously have a place on the [Republican presidential] stage if he wants it,” Norquist told me. “Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, Ron Paul and Jindal are the guys who can’t be denied access to the stage. Every one of them has a narrative that says they’ve done good things, they’ve governed well, they’ve got significant experience, and they can take a punch; they don’t have glass jaws…. With Jindal, it helps that his expertise is in health care, so he can explain how we can do better than Obamacare.”

Of course, however, there was “the speech.” Afforded the honor of giving the national Republican response to President Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address, Jindal himself wrote that he “blew it…. My delivery was just awful.”

No big deal, said Norquist: “All he needs is to give five speeches that go pretty well and people will say, ‘That’s cool, he’s gotten better’ and move on. You can always show people you are a better speaker than you used to be. It’s much easier to fix that than a bad vote.”

Indeed, Jindal has shown marked improvement as a speaker. Compared to two years ago, for example, when some were touting him to be Mitt Romney’s running mate, his delivery Thursday night in Mobile was more forceful, his cadences more natural, his humor less forced and better integrated into the natural flow of his speech, and his message sharper.

“I sense there is a rebellion brewing,” Jindal told the Mobile audience, “where people say we want our freedom back.”

Some Louisianians, suffering from Jindal fatigue, may scoff, but Jindal might become the Republican choice to lead that national, civic, ballot-box rebellion.

New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is qhillyer@theadvocate.com.