Let's mock Bobby Jindal one last time: An attention-seeker with no clear message abandons one of the worst presidential campaigns ever

The nation's least popular and most inept governor cratered his state while running a horrible campaign. Surprise!

Published November 19, 2015 10:58AM (EST)

Is it really news that the nation’s least popular and most inept governor, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, also ran one of the worst presidential campaigns in American history?

Hardly. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Louisiana politics could have told you two years ago that Jindal’s presidential campaign was doomed. When he dropped out of the race on Tuesday, was anyone even remotely surprised?

In fact, if I may boast for a moment, his failure is what I predicted in my New Orleans Times-Picayune column in July 2013, a year before Jindal announced for president:

[Jindal] doesn't realize it yet, but it will be a preposterous adventure. He will never be president because he's simply an awful candidate. Ever since revealing a burning desire for a role on the national stage, he's mostly reenacted various versions of a Wile E. Coyote impression. Jindal seeks attention, presents what he thinks is a supremely clever speech or column and, Boom!, the whole thing blows up. Smoking and hair singed, he slinks back to Baton Rouge to plot his next humiliating appearance before another befuddled audience.

Instead of wasting most of the last four years chasing the impossible dream, many in Louisiana believe Jindal’s time would have been better spent governing Louisiana. Instead, in his absence, the state veered into the ditch.

Louisiana’s budget is in such disarray that it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want his job. The state faces a crippling $500 million budget shortfall in the current fiscal year. The new governor who takes over in January must immediately deal with a massive budget crisis while also trying to close an estimated $700 million shortfall for the fiscal year that begins in July 2016. Jindal’s fiscal mismanagement is only one reason his job approval rating in a recent poll was a mere 20 percent.

Throughout the five months of his official campaign, Jindal was never a factor. In fact, it’s possible that the first time some voters heard about his presidential campaign was when they read that he had dropped out. Jindal will be lucky to be a footnote in the history of the 2016 race. Even so, his failed effort might contain a few important lessons about the challenges of running for president, in general, and the current political environment, in particular.

The 2016 race is not favorable ground for governors, especially failed governors. The Republican electorate is in an ugly mood. GOP voters aren’t enamored with political insiders and career politicians, which is to state the obvious. Donald Trump and Ben Carson wouldn’t be leading the GOP field if voters were looking for political experience. Jindal’s problem, however, was compounded by the fact that his record as governor was, by almost every measure, an abject failure.

Narrative is vital and Jindal had a weak one. Strong presidential candidates have compelling narratives or life stories. Carson has his rags-to-riches tale; Trump, his self-proclaimed business and negotiating prowess. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz each have powerful first-generation American stories.

Jindal is also a first-generation American, born to Indian immigrants who moved to Baton Rouge before he was born. But he’s spent the past 20 years trying to erase his Indian heritage from his biography. He Anglicized his name to “Bobby” (his real name is Piyush) and rewrote his life story into a tale of over-eager Christian assimilation. To many, it smacked of a calculated attempt to whitewash his heritage. In other words, Jindal appeared, quite literally, to be uncomfortable in his own skin.

Message matters and Jindal had too many of them. Jindal essentially launched his presidential campaign in the days after Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat. Remember Jindal’s famous speech to a Republican gathering in January 2013, when he declared, Republicans "must stop being the stupid party"? Jindal signaled that, unlike other candidates, he would be the adult in the room, talking about policy not pandering to racists and bigots. He called on his party to "stop insulting the intelligence of voters.”

Before long, however, Jindal seemed to forget that advice. He quickly went from being the campaign’s policy wonk and became the candidate least ashamed of pandering to his party’s Neanderthals. He assailed immigrants with an ugly passion. He made an embarrassing, unfounded allegation about European Muslim no-go zones during a visit to London. He attacked gays and lesbians. He briefly refused to acknowledge the supremacy of the U.S. Supreme Court and even advocated abolishing it. He joined with a right-wing religious hate group to stage a prayer rally in Baton Rouge last January.

In other words, Jindal did his best to become the chief spokesperson for the GOP “Stupid Party” wing. In between, he staged a series of stunts that only marginalized him as a desperate attention seeker. Jindal simply had no consistent message or clear rationale for his campaign. His strategy was, instead, to change messages and tactics constantly, hoping that something would finally work. Nothing did.

Never overestimate your political prowess; Jindal did. Win a few landslide victories for Congress and governor and it’s easy to think you’re a political genius. (Especially if you’re paying staffers to tell you that.) Jindal’s problem is that he won a few races against token opposition. But he lost the only truly competitive race of his political career, his 2003 race for governor against Kathleen Blanco.

Much like then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2012, Jindal thought he was playing in the big leagues when, in fact, he was still in the minors. They throw 100 mile-per-hour fastballs in the majors and Jindal couldn’t hit those. He was not a natural campaigner and, in a season when voters are attracted to showmen like Trump, Jindal offered no pizzazz or style. He was largely out of his depth in this race.

Debates matter and Jindal wasn’t in the big ones. Like it or not, the networks and the Republican National Committee created a debate system that gave someone like Jindal, always hopelessly mired at 1 or 2 percent in the polls, no chance to get on the stage with Trump, Carson, Rubio, Jeb Bush and the other major candidates.

Unlike Carly Fiorina, Jindal never had a particularly strong appearance in the so-called “undercard” debates held before the main network events. He could not gain admission to the big stage because the networks (based on his dreadful poll numbers) regarded him as insignificant to the race. But the only way for Jindal to earn respectability was to get on the main stage and mount a strong performance. Jindal was trapped in a vicious cycle of irrelevance.

Money matters and Jindal never had much of it. Presidential campaigns usually end not because they lack support but, rather, because they run out of money. Like several other candidates this cycle, Jindal lived off his super PAC, “Believe Again.” The PAC would organize most of Jindal’s campaign events in places like Iowa and invite the candidate to attend. That strategy can only sustain a campaign for so long. Even a well-funded super PAC can’t underwrite your payroll and rent or supply money for travel. By the end, Jindal faced a cash crisis. And he had no persuasive argument to make to prospective donors about why they should write him a check for $2,600. His campaign might have, quite literally, run out of gas.

First impressions are important and Jindal’s was a disaster. In some ways, and perhaps unfair to him, Jindal was always a joke with many political observers and late-night comedians. Jindal could never live down his disastrous national debut in February 2009, when he delivered the Republican Party’s response to President Obama’s first speech to a joint session of Congress. Jindal’s speech was not just bad; it was a ghastly communications disaster that haunts him still. Jindal’s horrendous self-parody created an impression of him as gaffe-prone bumbler. He could never rid himself of the damage from his ill-fated introduction to the American public.

Explaining his decision to quit his campaign, Jindal said on Tuesday, "it is not my time." Perhaps, after he’s had time for reflection, Jindal will realize that timing was the least of his problems. He was simply a failed governor, with no coherent rationale for his candidacy, who proved a mediocre campaigner and a terrible fundraiser.

There is never a good time for a campaign like the one Jindal ran.

Watch our mash-up of some of Jindal's most over-used lines:
[jwplayer file="http://media.salon.com/2015/11/ByeBobby.Asha_.11.18.2015.mp4" image="http://media.salon.com/2015/11/bobby-jindal.jpg"][/jwplayer]

By Robert Mann

Robert Mann is Manship Chair of Journalism at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication and author of “Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater and the Ad that Changed American Politics.”

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