Bobby Jindal's sad search: How he seeks political relevance in today's GOP

As governor eyes big prize in 2016, he jumps from one shtick to another in effort to woo elusive Republican voters

Published July 8, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Molly Riley)
(AP/Molly Riley)

We all know that politicians on the make often have to do contortions as they adapt to changing circumstances, but Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has felt more obliged than most in this regard. Jindal is seriously considering a run for the presidency. In a recent BuzzFeed interview, he took pains to situate himself at the head of today’s culture warriors, rivaling Mike Huckabee of Arkansas in his appeal to the religious right. “Increasingly the groups that are more and more picked on in society are evangelical Christians,” he says.

Jindal has the Hobby Lobby crowd in the palm of his hands. He also has in his corner Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, who has touted Jindal’s “covenant marriage.” The governor is primed for Iowa, crisscrossing the Bible Belt and preaching his belief that it’s the secularists who are ruining America with their extreme intolerance toward people of faith.

The governor has been seeking national attention for some time. He loves the camera. One day, with 2016 clearly in his sights, he comes out with a shockingly hopeful sound bite, such as: “We have to stop being the stupid party.” More often, though, he’s been doubling down on the message of the Rush Limbaugh, loud-shouting right, seeking a microphone in order to say outlandish things about the loss of liberty under the evil liberal Obama regime. Constantly traveling beyond his home state, he hopes that TV pundits won’t stop throwing his name out as a possible contender. But is there anything more to Bobby Jindal, beyond his peripatetic campaign for name recognition?

Many who have long histories in Louisiana politics will tell you that, coming up in the ranks, he was honest, rational and respectful, which would seem to distinguish him from the Tea Partyers he nowadays courts. A Rhodes scholar, like former Southern Gov. Bill Clinton, he eventually revealed himself to be, like Clinton, a tightly wrapped ball of ambition.

Jindal is not a joke. But when he doesn’t know how to be himself, he embraces the stupid party. It is a bit odd, actually, that he is effectively competing with neighboring Gov. Rick Perry, whose bandwagon he joined in 2012, and who is back in the nomination-seeking saddle.

To his credit, you didn’t find Jindal proclaiming that President Obama wasn’t born here, though his fellow Southern Republicans could hardly get enough of that. Unprovoked, though, the governor voluntarily released his own birth certificate in 2011, and did his duty as a stupid-party conservative by backing an urgent state initiative to require proof of U.S. birth for any individual who would be listed on a Louisiana ballot and run for national office.

Poor, intellectually gifted Bobby Jindal. Look at the folks he has to identify with, just to get ahead. It was during Reconstruction that white Southerners first exhibited their attachment to a latter-day peculiar institution: government-hating. A good many white Southerners persist in believing that only people born down South can truly understand their needs – there are those who are entitled to govern Southerners and those who are unentitled. The elevation of the unentitled is regarded as the sinister act of the aggressive outsider.

Jindal seems to believe that the way to show his good ol’ boy credentials is to oppose the federal government at a more feverish pitch than anyone else. Never mind that he went off to New England and graduated from Brown. Never mind that the precocious former congressman has to know that the chemically polluted, tax-resistant, impoverished and inefficient state of Louisiana cannot thrive without federal funding. Jindal understands that in order to be acceptable to many right-wing voters, he should stage a photo op with the "Duck Dynasty" patriarch and make outlandish statements. An anti-gay position polls well? He’s there, with all the stock pro-family rhetoric. Government is conspiring to take away your guns? Yep. And what’s at stake? “Nothing less than our identity as a nation,” Jindal says, less than half-convincingly.

He talks a lot about identity. American identity, the identity of the Republican Party. After Mitt Romney’s defeat, Jindal deployed the memorable line, “We've got to stop being the stupid party. It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults ... We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. I’m here to say we’ve had enough of that.”

He’s been trying for several years to overcome his stumble out of the gate. In early 2009, Jindal bombed in reading the Republican response to President Obama’s first major speech to Congress. In his tinniest, “Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood” voice, Jindal was caught, curiously, between two Democratic personae: the astute and reasonable Southern politician with broad intellectual credentials – the Bill Clinton model -- and the breath-of-fresh-air, down-home governor who figures that his state-bound Southern identity should upstage any and all Washington-like trappings – that would be the Jimmy Carter effect, circa 1976.

But Georgia’s Gov. Carter didn’t have to put on. He ran for president as a peanut farmer who understood nuclear submarines. Jindal was (and arguably is still) trying to figure out a credible political identity. He isn’t doing very well.

Then there’s the Louisiana vs. Texas choice for conservative voters in 2016. To gain acceptance in advance of the upcoming presidential campaign, Jindal is making his script sound more Tea Party. “I can sense right now a rebellion brewing amongst these United States,” he offered the Faith and Freedom Coalition the week before last.

Jindal seemed quite comfortable as he spoke to Ralph Reed’s people. The born-again activist Reed was another “boy wonder,” bursting onto the conservative scene a decade before Jindal. Reed actually looks like one of the Brady Bunch, but he forfeited his squeaky clean image after his financial ties to ex-con lobbyist Jack Abramoff were publicized. At the Faith and Freedom conference, Jindal appealed to evangelicals who have been feeling abused, or at least suppressed, by social liberals: “People are ready for a hostile takeover of Washington, D.C., to preserve the American Dream for our children and grandchildren,” he demagogued.

Hostile takeover? In his latest shout-out to extremist sentiment, Bobby Jindal has sunk to a new low. Maybe he was cribbing from Rick Perry’s Reconstruction-era script. The allusion, whether or not intentional, dates to actual Confederates bragging that their forces would march into Washington and chase the subhuman ape Lincoln out — and make him the real secessionist.

This past April, as a shill for the NRA, Jindal took the stage after the governor of Mississippi had concluded remarks. He opened with a Southerner’s tired joke about how the Mississippian’s manner of speech sounded truly American – at least to (wink, wink) his fellow Southerner Jindal. He was trying to say that only an outsider would describe Southernese as a regional dialect. He smiled and thought he was being funny. Not many in the crowd reacted.

“I’m going to talk to you about American values,” he continued, rubbing in the bromide. “My parents, like so many of you, have lived the American Dream ... My dad grew up in a house without running water, without electricity ...” Amar Jindal had told young Bobby that he should “give thanks to God Almighty” that he was “blessed” in being American-born.

Did his Indian immigrant father really thank “God Almighty” to his rapidly assimilating son of the South – given that “Bobby” himself didn’t abandon the Hindu faith and discover his Christian side until sometime in his teens? Ah, but every politician has a well-practiced origins story born of a streamlined memory.

“Our freedom is under attack,” says the Southerner Jindal. “Our opponents don’t believe in individual freedom … They believe the individual is subordinate to the state, subjects of the elite … We cannot let them change who America is.” [This to considerable applause.]

What often matters more than substance is how folksy he can make himself sound. “Lemme tell ya,” he says. “When it comes to the state of Louisiana we are proud to be clinging to our guns and our religion ... They think we’re too dangerous to protect our land ... They’re surprised we can tie our own shoelaces without government intervention. I’m sure they think that’s why I wear cowboy boots, by the way.” He’s still trying super-hard to fit in, using not-so-subtle symbols of his Americanness, his Southernness, not the least of which symbolism is his capacity for political hyperbole.

Jindal is virtually indistinguishable from Rush Limbaugh when he demonizes Obamacare or generalizes about liberals. He says: “These few liberals ... they get to see the plastic surgeons they want, but they want to pick your cardiologists.” In truth, though he speaks as if he champions the middle class, and speaks apocalyptically about former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s activism in banning sugar-rich Big Gulp sodas, Jindal fits snugly in the regulation-resistant hands of the big corporate elites.

“They live behind gates and bodyguards,” he said to the NRA crowd, in targeting big, bad liberals. “But they would leave you [liberty-loving gun owners] defenseless.” Baiting his audience with faux outrage, dishonest Bobby Jindal knows full well who lives behind the most secure gates in Louisiana. It’s his wealthy donors, not the middle-American white conservatives who stare up from their seats at the NRA gathering. Wildly attacking big government has become his calling card. To the gun lovers: “You’re probably going to be audited after being at this convention.”

The baiting continues. “These folks on the left, they’re audacious,” he intones. “But I’ll share a secret with you: They’re gutless.” Why? Because they can’t acknowledge – here we go again – that “God Almighty” endowed us with the right to defend ourselves with guns. (It’s worth noting here that God is not mentioned in the Second Amendment; nor does Jesus anywhere in the Gospels tell his followers to pack heat.)

Now, as for that BuzzFeed interview, here’s the problem. Evangelical Christians are doing just fine, as they always do under secular-minded presidents. Never mind that it was the activist “atheist” in the White House, Thomas Jefferson, who was largely responsible for according previously marginalized Baptists, Methodists and others the right to believe and speak freely. And pardon us, but James Madison got his idea of liberty of conscience from the Quaker leader William Penn, not from evangelicals. Nobody is censoring their religious publications or closing down their churches. What Jindal won’t tell his audiences is that people who disagree with the evangelicals’ hard and fast ideas do have the right to criticize them. Of course, you can’t say something like that if your goal is to rally your base.

So this is Jindal at his most deceptive, courting the party of stupid. He makes every issue overly simplistic, belying his good education. By the company he keeps, he is forced to reject the only politics that makes any sense: a healthy conversation toward a better understanding of practical possibilities. He has to know this.

The Ivy Leaguer tries so dang hard to sound convincing as a gun-packing, government-hating good ’ol boy with a genealogy to match, that he’ll never be able to navigate his way to a single, politically credible (or even definable) self. In his present incarnation as a Tea Party-friendly microphone-grabber, Jindal can’t win on the national level, unless he’s really shooting for the vice-presidential nomination or a do-nothing cabinet slot. You know, one of those government departments Rick Perry wanted to get rid of but just couldn’t remember by name.

By Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are historians at Louisiana State University and co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality." Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

MORE FROM Andrew Burstein

By Nancy Isenberg

MORE FROM Nancy Isenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2016 Elections Bobby Jindal Gop Governor Louisiana Republicans Tea Party The Right