About a week from today, after the polls close and the final tallies are announced, the 2014 midterm campaign will mercifully end and the 2016 presidential campaign will unofficially begin. And judging by the previews, it looks like the next White House race will be just as inane and annoying as the last one. But as unpleasant as being forced to witness another battle in the endless war of attrition between Hillary Clinton and the press may sound, we have at least one thing to look forward to: The presidential campaign of Louisiana’s Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, which is quite likely to happen and absolutely certain to fail.
I’m a congenital pessimist, so don’t give me too much credit for drawing attention to this pending debacle-cum-comic-relief. Instead, all praise should go to National Review’s Eliana Johnson, who reported Monday evening that a source “close to” Jindal was willing to confirm that the “slight” governor “has gained 13 pounds over the past few months” because he’s “looking to beef up” now that the 2016 campaign is “on the horizon.” Yes indeed, the guy whose political future began to unravel as soon as people noticed he sounded like Kenneth from “30 Rock” seems to think he can revive his flatlining career by reminding everyone that he doesn’t exactly reflect the Republican Party base’s particular vision of rugged masculinity.
Before reading the National Review piece, I assumed Jindal would run, fare poorly and then lobby the ultimate GOP nominee to pick him as vice president. There’s nothing wrong with that; it can often lead to a cabinet position in a future administration, and is a very traditional course for a second- or third-tier presidential aspirant to take. But now that I know Team Jindal is oblivious enough to think his career can be salvaged by cultivating mass? Well, I think it’s time we ready ourselves for a campaign that's so lost in the Tea Party twilight zone that anything could happen.
To understand why the Jindal camp’s decision to share this little scooplet is so phenomenally bizarre and foreboding, rather than simply silly and weird, you need to keep in mind just how much of a disaster his tenure as Louisiana governor has been. If you understandably don’t pay especially close attention to goings on in the Bayou State, this should give you a sense of Jindal’s severe lack of political acumen: In a state that went for John McCain and Mitt Romney by nearly 20 points in ’08 and ’12, respectively, only 34 percent of Louisianans approve of the job the extremely conservative Jindal is doing. He even loses a hypothetical matchup with former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who is not only a convicted felon but a Democrat to boot!
As to how Jindal managed to get himself into this situation, there’s no one single answer. But as Rachel Weiner of the Washington Post discovered last year (Jindal’s been underwater for a while now), the governor’s troubles can’t be explained without noting his proposal to eliminate income taxes in the state while raising sales taxes to make up for lost revenue. In addition to being extremely regressive, due to poor people being less likely to pay income taxes but certain to pay sales taxes, Jindal’s plan was also extremely unpopular — at one point, as many as two-out-of-three Louisianans opposed it outright. Recognizing political reality, Jindal ultimately surrendered. But many voters — who already were unhappy with Jindal’s cuts to education and healthcare, as well as his refusal to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion — never looked at him the same.
You’ll note that nowhere in the story of Jindal’s fall do the phrases “too skinny” or “needs to beef up” appear. This is because professional politician Bobby Jindal’s problems are political, rather than physical, in nature. As the 2013 Washington Post article mentioned previously rightly acknowledges, Jindal is being punished by Louisiana voters not because he’s failing at his job. On the contrary, they’re upset with him for doing it all too well.
What Jindal is experiencing, firsthand, is one of the major contradictions of U.S. politics: American voters are ideologically conservative but programmatically liberal. In other words, people in Louisiana (and pretty much everywhere else in the country) favor the rhetoric of shrinking government and cutting spending that’s propelled Jindal throughout his career. But when it’s time to actually make those “sacrifices,” the public, operating under the mistaken impression that significant cuts can be found by simply eliminating charity, fraud and waste, balks at any real reductions to any programs it sees as working in its interest. In a blue state like New Jersey, a Republican politician can get away with nabbing headlines for fiscal seriousness by solely attacking unions and the poor. But in an already right-wing state like Louisiana, there aren't many politically harmless cuts left to make.
To their credit, Jindal’s biggest supporters haven’t denied this fundamental reality. Somewhat strangely, they’ve tried to spin it — and, by extension, Jindal’s dismal approval rating — as an asset for the governor instead. “Bobby is not a get along to go along type,” one Jindal consultant explained to the Washington Post. “When you rock the boat, some people are happy, some aren’t,” he continued. “[Jindal] fights hard for what he thinks is best for the state, sometimes independent of whether it's popular at the time.” If the GOP’s infamously and distinctly uncompromising Tea Party base wants a candidate who’ll enforce conservative dogma regardless of public opinion, Team Jindal seems to say, then the governor of Louisiana is their man. He’s certainly got the record to prove it.
What makes the National Review bombshell about Jindal’s growing girth so amusingly fitting, then, is not simply the mental image of the governor training with Hans and Franz, but also how it reflects the degree to which he and his team are hopelessly ensconced in the Tea Party bubble. By focusing so relentlessly on implementing as radical an agenda as possible, Jindal’s tied himself at the hip to the most right-wing members of the GOP. He apparently thinks they’ll be all he needs to prosper in 2016. The truth, however, is that, in a few years, the mandarins of the Republican Party will be so desperate to reclaim the White House that a far-right Southern governor — loathed by even the very conservative voters in his own state — will be the last thing they’ll consider the party to need.
Jindal can work out to his heart’s content. But whether he’s beefy or slight won’t make much of a difference. He’ll never be president, either way.