Stephanie Grace: Vitter’s subtle message: I’m no Jindal

On paper, Gov. Bobby Jindal and David Vitter have so much in common that a stranger might have trouble telling them apart.

Both are Louisiana natives who went to Ivy League colleges, then won prestigious Rhodes Scholarships. Both are conservative Republicans who generally hew to the far right. Throughout their careers, both have practically oozed political ambition.

Both once represented the 1st District in Congress, a position they each used as a stepping stone to bigger things.

And they used to get along, in a senior partner/junior partner sort of way. During happier times, Vitter, who’s 10 years older, used to tell the story about how he interviewed a young Jindal for the Rhodes Scholarship, came home and told his wife that he’d just met someone who made him feel stupid. That all ended after Jindal distanced himself from Vitter in 2007, when his own gubernatorial run coincided with Vitter’s prostitution scandal, and the tension’s been palpable ever since.

And add this to the list of things they have in common: Nobody can accuse either Jindal or Vitter of procrastinating.

Never mind that Louisiana has one of the biggest Senate races in the country this fall, not to mention a pair of important and quirky congressional contests in the 5th and 6th districts. Thanks to the state’s top two Republicans, we’re simultaneously watching the 2015 gubernatorial contest and the 2016 presidential race unfold.

Jindal hasn’t declared his intentions, but he’s spending an awful lot of time going places where presidential candidates go. More importantly, he’s doing an awful lot of things presidential candidates do — to the consternation of many constituents who worry about the long-term effect of policies clearly designed to appeal to a national audience of GOP primary voters.

Vitter announced his gubernatorial ambitions early. He’s spending the summer recess meeting with leaders in key areas of state policy and also hinting at his agenda for the race to come. And that’s where Jindal has given his old friend-turned-foe a great big opening.

Serving in Congress during this most divisive of periods, Vitter’s been a willing and eager ideologue in both substance and style. He routinely bashes environmental regulation and President Barack Obama’s health care law. He seems to delight in opposing Obama’s nominees; in fact, during his last re-election campaign, he basically acted as if he were running against the president himself rather than Democratic candidate Charlie Melancon.

Vitter the gubernatorial candidate is taking a different approach. In public, he’s tempering his tone and dialing back the hard-line ideology, hinting strongly that he might accept the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and declaring outright that he backs the Common Core education standards. In private, in a series of closed-door meetings on issues such as health care, K-12 education and higher education, he’s presenting a pragmatic front and declaring himself open to all sorts of policy options.

Vitter emerged from his meeting with higher ed officials in Baton Rouge last week and talked of stabilizing funding after years of cuts. He said he’d be willing to consider changes to the popular TOPS program to make it more sustainable, and can’t wait to look at the tax structure and see if there might be more revenue from eliminating exemptions that aren’t worth the state’s while. He even spoke of creating centers of excellence that would attract more federal investment, which he described as “free dollars” — in budgetary terms, anyway.

While Jindal’s positioning for the national audience looks awkward and transparent, at least to the voters who know him best, Vitter’s makes intuitive sense.

It sets him up to compete against his best-known opponent, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, for more moderate votes. And it sends the unspoken message that, if elected, Vitter wouldn’t try to prove his conservative bona fides by rejecting federal money that could benefit the state or by refusing to consider revenue enhancements that someone might cast as tax increases.

In short, Vitter’s campaign theme seems to be that he’s no Jindal. And he wants to make sure that people can tell the difference.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter @stephgracenola.