Gov. Bobby Jindal faces deepening troubles in his home state even as he dishes out advice on how the divided GOP can regroup and looks to position himself as a national party front man.
The new head of the Republican Governors Association, who also is a potential future White House contender, has made a series of cuts to health services and colleges, drawing criticism from affected constituents and Republicans who say he’s not cut enough. And while he delighted conservative policy wonks nationally with his signature measures overhauling education and public employee pensions, those laws are tied up in state court as Republican judges claim constitutional concerns.
At the same time, recent polls suggest that Jindal’s once-formidable job performance rating has fallen below 50 percent just over a year after he was re-elected without serious opposition.
“He’s got a large number of people in Louisiana who just do not like him,” said Baton Rouge pollster Bernie Pinsonat, not usually a Jindal critic.
The question isn’t necessarily how Jindal’s circumstances affect him inside his own party, where he remains popular among vocal conservatives.
“He’s done some serious reforms and taken a stand against establishment thinking,” said South Carolina Republican Chairman Chad Connelly, whose state expects to host the first Southern primary in 2016.
But any governor seeking a national platform must find a way to frame his political approach for a broader audience, and the challenge for a Republican Party that has lost five of the past six presidential popular votes is to find standard bearers who satisfy the GOP base while widening it, too.
Bill Clinton sold the nation in 1992 on Arkansas progress, overcoming mockery of his “Arkansas miracle.”
Eight years later, George W. Bush framed his work with Texas Democrats, who ran the legislature, as proof that he was a “uniter, not a divider.”
The first ingredient, Pinsonat said, is having your own people call you a success, adding: “If I’m from another state and the guy’s not popular in his home state, no matter what he says after that, I don’t know if you hear the rest of it.”
Barred from seeking re-election, Jindal’s second term ends in January 2016, neatly dovetailing with the first caucuses and primaries of the 2016 cycle.
Timmy Teepell, a former Jindal chief of staff who advises Jindal and other Republicans as a campaign consultant, said his old boss isn’t preoccupied with the political chessboard — with the obvious exception of electing more GOP governors during his Republican Governors Association tenure.
“If you do the big things, the right things for the right reasons,” Teepell said, “then people will appreciate it. Sometimes it just takes time to see results.”
In the wake of Mitt Romney’s competitive but decisive loss to President Barack Obama in November, Jindal has been at the forefront of delivering sharp criticism to the GOP.
He has bemoaned “dumbed-down conservatism.” He has argued that the GOP is a “populist” organization and that Republicans shouldn’t be the party of “big anything.”
And he has said that the GOP should “stop being the stupid party.” It was a response to Todd Akin, of Missouri, and Richard Mourdock, of Indiana, the failed Senate candidates whose controversial comments about abortion helped Democrats win seats once viewed as Republican locks.
Jindal also has been clear that Republicans must not “change what we believe” and he has suggested the party hasn’t gone big enough in its argument against active government. “It’s time to quit arguing around the edges of that corrupt system,” he has said.
At first blush, Jindal’s Louisiana priorities fit neatly within his party roadmap.
He’s pushing to eliminate all corporate and personal income taxes, in favor of sales tax increases. He’s refused to expand Medicaid under Obama’s health care overhaul, and he’s dismantling the state’s unique public hospital system, in no small part through his control over the leadership of the LSU System that runs the health care enterprise. He has privatized parts of the Medicaid insurance program for the poor along with state workers’ health care plan.
He’s dramatically cut the number of state workers, though mostly by issuing contracts to pay private firms to do the same work. He’s created one of the nation’s largest school voucher programs, with a price tag of $25 million this year and more than 4,900 students enrolled.
Yet for all his criticism of a big federal government, Jindal has approved its excess and accepted its bounty. As a congressman, he supported deficit budgets under President George W. Bush. Jindal, like every other governor, used federal stimulus money — provided through an Obama law that Jindal assailed — to balance his state budget for at least two years and, in many instances, he traveled to small towns to hand out checks to local government leaders, while sidestepping the explanation that the dollars came from federal coffers.
As many program cuts as Jindal has pushed in Louisiana, he’s feuded with his fellow Republicans in the Legislature who say he’s not done enough.
Jindal’s state government helped spend billions of dollars in federal rebuilding aid after multiple hurricanes, including Katrina. Louisiana just hosted the Super Bowl in a publicly owned stadium restored and upgraded with taxpayer money.
Particularly to outsiders, Jindal has styled himself as a technocrat — competence above ideology — who doesn’t necessarily get his juice from social conservatives. He has won plaudits for disaster management on hurricanes and after the BP oil disaster. His command of policy details is obvious, according to those with access, in private meetings.
Still, Jindal carefully cultivates social conservatives. A Catholic convert raised by Hindu parents, Jindal has spent countless Sundays in Protestant north Louisiana sharing his personal testimony. He signed the Louisiana Science Education Act that allows science teachers to use outside curriculum, a move that Nobel laureates protest as a back-door way to teach Biblical creation as science. His voucher program pays for children to attend religious schools that teach creationism and reject evolution.
Over his five years in office, Jindal has traveled to three dozen states to collect campaign dollars, meet voters and help other Republican candidates. He’s tapped into an extensive network of GOP fundraising and consulting firms that could help launch future political campaigns and built political relationships across key presidential states like Iowa and New Hampshire. And, as he pushes his tax overhaul, he’s hired former communications aides who worked for Romney and Mike Huckabee.
Even so, Teepell said none of Jindal’s agenda is aimed at outsiders: “The governor is focused on Louisiana.”
Bill Barrow reported from Atlanta.