Commentary Magazine


Jindal’s Populist Manifesto Has a Problem

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal made some headlines with his speech to the Republican National Committee yesterday in which he called out the GOP as having behaved like “the stupid party” in 2012. He is hardly alone in considering the infamous cracks of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock about rape and pregnancy to be classic examples of stupidity but the main point of his address wasn’t about the perils of nominating idiots for Senate seats. Instead, Jindal put forth a manifesto about how to revive conservatism in the age of Obama. His formula is deceptively simple: opt out of a rigged game focused on how to balance the budget and replace it with a populist approach in which big government is the target.

The idea is a powerful message and is exactly what the Republican grass roots wants to hear, especially the part in which the Washington is put down and state and local governments, such as the one Jindal leads, are lauded. He’s right that the current debate in the Capitol over things like the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff is being fought on the Democrats’ terms and has, predictably, led to GOP defeats. Jindal is also right that Republicans ought to be more interested in growing the economy than in enforcing austerity. But as much as his talk sounded like a winning approach to the 2016 presidential primaries in which he may be a serious competitor, the problem for his party is that opting out of the current debates on the debt and the budget is easy if your office is in located in Baton Rouge. It’s not an option for a House Republican caucus that remains the only real obstacle to President Obama’s plans for higher taxes and more spending in the next four years.

Jindal’s populist battle plan in which the GOP declares itself in opposition to everything that is big including government, labor unions and business is smart politics and takes the party back to its Reaganite roots. He’s also right in understanding that conservatives win when they fight elections on the broad principles of limited government, federalism, lower taxes, individual rights and use Washington as their piñata instead of being pinned down on just how much of the entitlement state they are willing to retain.

Divided government is frustrating for both sides but especially for a Republican party that has the shorter end of the stick in Washington. With a strident ideological liberal in the White House and a Democrat-run Senate there is no way the GOP-led House can enforce its will on the other two. Ironically, while Jindal’s ideas for a wholesale cutback in the size of government would seem to be in line with the views of the most hard-line Tea Party conservatives in Congress who are adamant about not being co-opted into supporting more debt, his call for the party to avoid being entangled in conflicts about the budget seems in line with more moderate party members who want to punt on those issues. The point is, if you believe, as Jindal does, that the federal government is too big and too powerful, then how do you manifest that opposition to the president’s agenda other than by taking a stand in Congress on those issues even if that puts you in, as he rightly says, a rigged game?

Jindal’s principles are sound as is his political advice to the party. He’s right that they must go big in terms of ideas while avoiding the Democrats’ traps that could lead to unpopular government shutdowns. But the problem for Republicans is that 2016 is a long way off. They need to do more in the coming months and years than to tread water while thinking deep thoughts about a vision for the country’s future in that time. The Louisiana governor’s approach makes sense in the long term but embattled Republican members of the House and Senate may be forgiven for wondering if he has any ideas that will help them stand up to Obama’s full court press on the Hill while he is making friends in Iowa and New Hampshire.