Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bobby Jindal

Bobby Jindal: One Wonk to Rule Them All?

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is continuing to write the preamble to his 2016 presidential candidacy. In April, Jindal released a health-care reform plan. Last month, he offered an energy plan. And yesterday, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he laid out his approach to defense policy. All of them have one thing in common: Jindal is not just part of the new breed of reform conservatives; he is hoping to be the first conservative wonk to win the Republican presidential nomination.

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Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is continuing to write the preamble to his 2016 presidential candidacy. In April, Jindal released a health-care reform plan. Last month, he offered an energy plan. And yesterday, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he laid out his approach to defense policy. All of them have one thing in common: Jindal is not just part of the new breed of reform conservatives; he is hoping to be the first conservative wonk to win the Republican presidential nomination.

Jindal is obviously smart, experienced, and fluent in policy. He’s also taken on the kind of “happy warrior” persona Republicans should embrace: outrage is not the same thing as anger. And seems to understand the importance of perceived authenticity, so he’s dropped the faux-folksiness he once wore on his sleeve and appears more comfortable in his own skin. But for the revenge of the nerds to be successful, Jindal is going to have to overcome the key challenge posed by how Republicans and Democrats see American electoral politics today.

On the Republican side, few if any doubt Jindal’s obvious intelligence and undeniable competence. But in a wide-open race for the nomination, it will be crucial for each candidate to have their own base within the conservative movement. In this respect, Jindal’s identity as a jack of all trades is less beneficial than it first appears.

Jindal’s defense plan is hawkish, but Marco Rubio long beat him to the punch in terms of establishing his political identity as a learned advocate for a robust American presence in the world. If the party’s hawks are to latch onto any prospective candidate, Rubio is likely to be the one. Most of the party’s potential nominees are hawkish and even Rand Paul has embraced the plain fact that President Obama’s unthinking retrenchment has been a disaster. (So have the president’s Cabinet secretaries; no one wants to take any credit for Obama’s colossal mishandling of world affairs.)

The same is generally true of the other major streams of American conservatism, as I’ve written in the past. But Jindal’s official identification as a hawk does not change the calculus.

The other challenge for Jindal here is how the two parties have reacted to the failure of the Obama presidency. When Obama was a candidate, he was built up by the media and his supporters (but I repeat myself) as a very smart, nuanced thinker. When that turned out not to be true, and when it became clear he also didn’t have the intellectual curiosity necessary to remedy his broad lack of knowledge, the right and the left each reacted differently.

Conservatives responded by turning forcefully against the pretensions of the academic elite. Rule by experts was always under suspicion because of the folly of treating people as science experiments and the repellant culture of eugenics so many of the policies seek to legitimize. But with Obama it became perfectly clear that the experts weren’t actually experts. Liberals just pretended to know what they were talking about, and hid behind credentialism when questioned.

Who is better positioned to take advantage of the discovery that the professor has no clothes, someone like Jindal or someone like, say, Scott Walker, the successful reformist governor without even a college degree? To conservatives, the answer seems clear. They will almost surely end up nominating someone more knowledgeable than the current president, just because the bar is so low. But they would take special pleasure in nominating precisely the kind of politician who would be looked down upon by the Democrats but who would nonetheless run circles around their Democratic opponent intellectually.

Liberals responded to Obama’s failure in a different way: by reverting to the mean of left-liberal politics. Democratic Party politics is traditionally a method of organizing a coalition of interested parties in such a way as to reward them for their support. There is not much of a coherent ideological component outside of the extremely ideological character of the party’s positions on social and cultural issues. Ben Domenech touched on this in last month’s COMMENTARY by noting that:

History may ultimately consider Obama’s 2008 nomination as a representation not of progressivism’s resurgent appeal, but as its death rattle—a speed bump along the way to the Democratic Party’s becoming a fully corporatist, Clinton-owned entity. In practice, the party now resembles a protection racket with an army of volunteers, with friends who never suffer and enemies who never relax.

Political science has begun to catch up with this reality as well. In a recent paper, Matt Grossman and his coauthor David A. Hopkins studied the way Democrats and Republicans each seek to govern, and explain that Republicans tend to govern according to ideological principles while Democrats govern by rewarding constituencies. They write:

The partisan asymmetry in the governing style of political elites has its roots in the mass public. Party identifiers in the electorate perceive political choices differently: Republicans are more likely to reason ideologically whereas Democrats are more likely to think of politics as a competition among groups over benefits. This difference is durable over time.

The authors add that “Republican politicians and interest groups thus represent both their partisan base and a wider public majority when they think, speak, and act ideologically, advocating restrictions on government activity in a broad sense. By contrast, Democratic politicians and affiliated interests prefer to stress their advocacy of particular policies that have wider public support and that offer targeted benefits to members of their electoral coalition, placing themselves on the side of social groups favoring government action to ameliorate perceived disadvantages.”

That also helps explain the proliferation of put-upon groups in the constellation of liberal identity politics. If Democrats need more votes, they stoke resentment and create a new category for taxpayer-funded benefits. Their response to the revelation that their experts can’t be trusted, in other words, was to go back to inviting enough voters to raid the treasury to win national elections.

What does that mean for Jindal and the wonks? It means an uphill battle. Republicans believe they nominated a competent managerial technocrat last time around–and lost decisively. And Democrats aren’t particularly interested in intellectual prowess–they simply want to divide and conquer the electorate. Jindal is obviously qualified to be the nation’s chief executive. But it’s lonely out there for a wonk.

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The Ever-Expanding 2016 GOP Field

The nature of the GOP’s nominating race for 2016 is such that good polls for some potential candidates are also tempting for others not yet included in the polls. For example, the most recent polling on Iowa, which Jonathan wrote about last week, showed Mike Huckabee with a healthy lead. Early polls are about name recognition, so they can only be taken so far. Nonetheless, candidates who have already built name recognition by running in the past can’t help but notice the value of such recognition when some of their strongest competitors are, theoretically, relative unknowns nationwide.

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The nature of the GOP’s nominating race for 2016 is such that good polls for some potential candidates are also tempting for others not yet included in the polls. For example, the most recent polling on Iowa, which Jonathan wrote about last week, showed Mike Huckabee with a healthy lead. Early polls are about name recognition, so they can only be taken so far. Nonetheless, candidates who have already built name recognition by running in the past can’t help but notice the value of such recognition when some of their strongest competitors are, theoretically, relative unknowns nationwide.

Take this summer poll from Gallup on the public’s familiarity with 2016 candidates. The only two Republicans to crack 60 percent were Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. Other than those two, the potential candidates who had run presidential campaigns in the past tended to score higher than those who haven’t yet run–a quite logical finding. If he wins reelection in Wisconsin, Scott Walker would be considered among the GOP’s strongest candidates (on paper at least, which is all we have so far for the newbies). Walker was involved in a high-stakes national issue: the fight over public unions. And thanks to that, he was subject to a recall election that saw national press and mobilized national liberal groups. Yet Gallup found Walker with the lowest familiarity of any of the GOP candidates, at just 34 percent.

Similarly, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal–the human résumé–was at just 38 percent. Huckabee was at 54 percent, higher than previous candidate Rick Santorum (but lower than Rick Perry) as well as all the non-previous candidates except Christie, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul, who was at 55 percent. Huckabee also tied Christie for the highest favorability rating in that poll.

And that poll didn’t even include Mitt Romney, who shows up leading New Hampshire polls for the same reason Huckabee polls well in Iowa. And while a Romney candidacy would certainly have its cheerleaders, Huckabee is talking openly about testing those polls:

The Republican told a group of reporters on Monday over coffee at a restaurant just outside of D.C. that he learned from his failed 2008 bid that he can’t take money and fundraising for granted, even though he is leading in GOP early primary state polls.

Huckabee says he will make a decision early next year about another presidential run but noted he’s in a “different place than I was eight years ago,” due to a lucrative career as a Fox News and radio show host.

That career has also opened the door to meetings with donors he said he wouldn’t have gotten in 2008. Then, they’d say, “Who are you? How do you spell your name?”

In fact, Huckabee said he’s in talks with donors, and, “with a lot of people, it’s [going] pretty good.” He pointed to the nonprofit, America Takes Action, which he recently set up that, he says, has already raised seven figures.

“Not a single person I’ve asked [to contribute to the group] has said no,” he told reporters.

Huckabee had a decent run for an underdog in 2008 and he has a natural constituency, as well as an amiability that translates into votes. The same cannot be said for another retread who is the subject of speculation: former Utah governor Jon Huntsman.

Huntsman has a few things going for him: he’s got gubernatorial experience as well as foreign-policy chops from his time as ambassador to China, and he has considerable financial resources at his disposal. But unlike Huckabee, outside of the media Huntsman has no natural base (and the reporters who love him will vote for Hillary anyway in the general). And also unlike Huckabee, Huntsman is almost shockingly unlikeable for a politician.

Huntsman has a general disposition that is about as pleasant as nails on a chalkboard. He does not like Republican voters, and he does not want them to think otherwise. The feeling is mutual: Huntsman’s numbers from 2012 suggest the pool of Huntsman voters is made up entirely of people who are either named Huntsman or owe him money.

And then there is Jindal, a smart, wonky conservative with executive experience and a strong command of the issues. Jindal’s name recognition is so low that he’s forced to be less coy than others about his possible presidential ambitions:

“There’s no reason to be coy,” Jindal said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “I am thinking, I am praying about whether I’ll run in 2016. I said I won’t make that decision until after November.”

Jindal has certain strengths: he’s as smart as Huntsman pretends he is, for starters. And he’s far from insufferable about it: he doesn’t project arrogance, just competence. He’s been twice elected governor of Louisiana, so he has experience on the campaign trail. He’s proved himself in a crisis. And he seems to genuinely like interacting with voters.

But his competition would include another impressive, reformist conservative governor in Scott Walker; other young conservatives with poise and presence, like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and possibly Ted Cruz; and more experienced social conservatives such as, potentially, Huckabee, Rick Perry, and perhaps Mike Pence. The question, then, is whether Jindal could find some way to stand out from the pack. And with polls like those we’ve seen so far, that roster of rivals is likely to keep expanding.

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Jeb Bush and the 2016 GOP Field

George Will wrote a column in which he said of Jeb Bush, “A candidacy by Florida’s former governor would be desirable” and “[he] does … deserve a respectful hearing from the Republican nominating electorate.”


I agree, partly because I admire Bush, who was a highly successful, reform-minded conservative governor. His record as governor of Florida was, in fact, more conservative in key respects than Ronald Reagan’s record when he was governor of California. (Mr. Reagan signed into law what at the time was the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor, whereas Bush cut taxes every year he was governor, covering eight years and totaling $20 billion.) Governor Bush also has the ability to appeal to non-traditional GOP voters. For example, he won 61 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1998 and 56 percent of their vote in 2002. (Hispanics are one of the fastest-rising demographic groups in America; in 2012, Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of their vote.)

There are people who have doubts Bush will run and who say that even if he did, he wouldn’t win. Perhaps. For my part, I hope he does run, assuming he can do so with, in his words, “joy in my heart.”

But I also hope many others run in 2016, not only those I’m favorably disposed toward (like Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, and Scott Walker) but also those I’ve been more critical of (including Ted Cruz and Rick Perry). Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee would be formidable figures in a contest; I hope they, too, enter the contest. The same goes for Rand Paul, with whom I have substantial disagreements (he is far more libertarian than I am).

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George Will wrote a column in which he said of Jeb Bush, “A candidacy by Florida’s former governor would be desirable” and “[he] does … deserve a respectful hearing from the Republican nominating electorate.”


I agree, partly because I admire Bush, who was a highly successful, reform-minded conservative governor. His record as governor of Florida was, in fact, more conservative in key respects than Ronald Reagan’s record when he was governor of California. (Mr. Reagan signed into law what at the time was the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor, whereas Bush cut taxes every year he was governor, covering eight years and totaling $20 billion.) Governor Bush also has the ability to appeal to non-traditional GOP voters. For example, he won 61 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1998 and 56 percent of their vote in 2002. (Hispanics are one of the fastest-rising demographic groups in America; in 2012, Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of their vote.)

There are people who have doubts Bush will run and who say that even if he did, he wouldn’t win. Perhaps. For my part, I hope he does run, assuming he can do so with, in his words, “joy in my heart.”

But I also hope many others run in 2016, not only those I’m favorably disposed toward (like Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, and Scott Walker) but also those I’ve been more critical of (including Ted Cruz and Rick Perry). Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee would be formidable figures in a contest; I hope they, too, enter the contest. The same goes for Rand Paul, with whom I have substantial disagreements (he is far more libertarian than I am).

Why do I hope the GOP contest will include people I’m not wild about? Because I want as many serious and substantial figures in the race as possible, in order to have the best representatives of various currents of thought (and style) within conservatism make their case. These debates can be clarifying, in a healthy way. (Some of us still regret that Governor Mitch Daniels, one of the most impressive minds and political talents in the GOP, didn’t run in 2012.)

In addition, people who look good on paper and sound impressive when being interviewed on Meet the Press don’t necessarily do well in presidential contests, where the scrutiny and intensity are far beyond what anyone who hasn’t run can imagine. Some people you might think would do superbly well in a presidential contest flame out; others who one might think would flounder rise to the occasion. You never know until the contest begins. So my attitude is the more the better, at least above a certain threshold. (Please, no more figures like Herman Cain, Ron Paul, or Michele Bachmann.)


The 2016 presidential contest should be winnable, but it won’t be easy. Democrats have important advantages right now when it comes to presidential contests. Which is why for Republicans to prevail it will take the best the GOP can produce. Who is that individual right now?

I have no idea. And neither do you. 

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OCare’s Milestone and Jindal’s Opportunity

Today’s Washington Post article on Bobby Jindal, by Robert Costa and Amy Goldstein, is a great example of how a newspaper’s reporting can be vastly improved by actually embracing ideological diversity. Costa was recently hired by the Post from National Review, where his access to the right side of the political isle had him running circles around other reporters when it came to conservative politics.

And today’s article is refreshingly free of condescension and peppered with actual information and verifiable claims, unlike the treatment Republican rising stars are used to getting in, say, the Washington Post. For example, the article centers on Jindal’s new health-care reform proposal, and rather than parrot DNC talking points that Republicans have no plans or ideas on offer, we read this:

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Today’s Washington Post article on Bobby Jindal, by Robert Costa and Amy Goldstein, is a great example of how a newspaper’s reporting can be vastly improved by actually embracing ideological diversity. Costa was recently hired by the Post from National Review, where his access to the right side of the political isle had him running circles around other reporters when it came to conservative politics.

And today’s article is refreshingly free of condescension and peppered with actual information and verifiable claims, unlike the treatment Republican rising stars are used to getting in, say, the Washington Post. For example, the article centers on Jindal’s new health-care reform proposal, and rather than parrot DNC talking points that Republicans have no plans or ideas on offer, we read this:

In his 26-page plan, Jindal lays out a lengthy critique of the health law — which he refers to throughout as “Obamacare” — and reiterates his belief that it needs to be entirely done away with. In its place, he sets forth a bevy of ideas that have run through conservative thought for years, in some cases renaming them and in other cases suggesting new variations on old themes.

Indeed, conservatives have been offering ideas–most of them better than the bureaucratic mess and extralegal application of ObamaCare–for years. The article is also interesting for its framing of Jindal within the 2016 presidential landscape. Jindal has long been a favorite of GOP policy wonks and proponents of education reform, but it’s an open question as to whether he could translate that into broader, television-friendly appeal.

The biggest setback to that possibility came when an overly-folksy Jindal delivered the GOP’s response to Obama’s 2009 national address. He was written off, unfairly; after all, Bill Clinton famously cratered at the 1988 Democratic nominating convention only to be nominated himself four years later. But the weakness in Jindal’s delivery was real: he had committed the modern age’s cardinal sin of discarding authenticity in an attempt to be memorable. (He was, but not for the right reasons.)

Jindal seems now to be more comfortable in his own skin:

Putting an emphasis on Jindal’s policy chops has become the latest project for his kitchen cabinet, which includes Curt Anderson, a former political director at the Republican National Committee, and political adviser Timmy Teepell. So is highlighting Jindal’s willingness to articulate an agenda — all while other hopefuls, from Christie to Paul, are making their own strides on the pre-primary stage.

“It’s early, but this is a good time for him to show how he belongs with the rest of those names,” said Charlie Black, a former campaign adviser to Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee.

Jindal has been steeped in the world of health policy since early in his career. In his mid-20s he became secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals, and then he was named the staff director of a bipartisan commission on the future of Medicare. A few years later, he became an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Is this a winning strategy? It always depends on the competition, of course, but Jindal is one of the few conservative leaders who could benefit from the enrollment numbers ObamaCare racked up thus far. ObamaCare is far from a success–indeed, even late-night host Jimmy Fallon greeted the “mission accomplished” ObamaCare announcement by noting that “it’s amazing what you can achieve when you make something mandatory, and fine people if they don’t do it — and keep extending the deadline for months.”

But the president’s celebration was telling. The point of the frantic enrollment rush was to try to mitigate what had made the enrollment rush possible in the first place–Obama’s cancellation of Americans’ insurance policies they actually liked–and get them in some way dependent on the state. At the outset, ObamaCare was weakest before it created millions of dependents. That’s the mark Obama was aiming for, not a more serious definition of “success,” which might be well beyond ObamaCare’s reach anyway.

Now the narrative has shifted, and Republicans who want to undo the damage ObamaCare has already done and prevent the damage it threatens to do must concentrate as much or more on the “replace” side of their “repeal and replace” slogan. It’s the first moment, in other words, in the post-2012 election drama that calls specifically for a wonk to step forward, and Jindal has done so. Whether that can enable him to compete with Republicans’ prospective first-tier candidates remains to be seen, but it’s clear he’s at least improved his sense of timing.

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Duck Dynasty, Free Speech, and Hypocrisy

I don’t write this every day but sometimes it needs to be said. Liberals have a point. Not about ObamaCare or their plans to increase spending and taxes. But about Phil Robertson and the hypocrisy of some of his conservative supporters who are outraged about the fact that the Duck Dynasty star was suspended for uttering critical remarks about homosexuality as well as some bizarre comments about the Jim Crow era that for some reason got less attention than his conservative Christian take on gays and sex.

Robertson was suspended yesterday by the A&E network that runs the hit reality show about a family business that makes duck calls after an outcry over things the hunting patriarch said in a GQ interview. In response, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said Robertson (who is a resident of his state) was a victim of the “politically correct crowd.” Sarah Palin weighed in with her trademark lowbrow pandering style on her Facebook page:

Free speech is an endangered species. Those “intolerants” hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.

Are they right? Not really.

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I don’t write this every day but sometimes it needs to be said. Liberals have a point. Not about ObamaCare or their plans to increase spending and taxes. But about Phil Robertson and the hypocrisy of some of his conservative supporters who are outraged about the fact that the Duck Dynasty star was suspended for uttering critical remarks about homosexuality as well as some bizarre comments about the Jim Crow era that for some reason got less attention than his conservative Christian take on gays and sex.

Robertson was suspended yesterday by the A&E network that runs the hit reality show about a family business that makes duck calls after an outcry over things the hunting patriarch said in a GQ interview. In response, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said Robertson (who is a resident of his state) was a victim of the “politically correct crowd.” Sarah Palin weighed in with her trademark lowbrow pandering style on her Facebook page:

Free speech is an endangered species. Those “intolerants” hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.

Are they right? Not really.

Robertson is entitled to his opinion about faith, sex, race, or anything else on his mind. But his right to free speech doesn’t entitle him to a job on an A&E show. If the network doesn’t wish to be associated with such views, they are free to tell him to take a hike. For the same reason MSNBC was within its rights to can actor Alec Baldwin when he used a homophobic slur and then lied about it. The same network was also right when it eased Martin Bashir, one of the network’s left-wing opinion slingers, out after he used despicable language about the same Sarah Palin. At that time conservatives (including me) wondered what was going on when for weeks Bashir went unpunished for behaving in such an atrocious manner. Nobody on the right thought Bashir’s right of free speech was at stake. Instead, they correctly identified the issue as the hypocrisy of liberals who are quick to brand conservatives who speak out of turn as extremists and radicals who are primarily responsible for the lack of civility in politics today.

The right to free speech has nothing to do with having a gig on television. No one has a right to such a job and nothing prevents those who run these outfits from choosing who works for them. That applies to Bashir as well as to Robertson.

Those defending Robertson are making a broader point. They fear that anyone who is critical of gays and states it from a conservative theological frame of reference is particularly vulnerable to being singled out for being politically incorrect. There’s something to that, as popular culture has rendered those with negative views about homosexuality, whether rooted in faith or not, as anathema. Gays shouldn’t be subjected to abuse or insults, but the fact that Robertson’s comments about them sparked more outrage than his Christian chauvinism or his idiotic assertion that blacks were happy under Jim Crow tells us a lot about our culture these days.

It should also be pointed out that there’s something odd about A&E punishing a member of the cast of Duck Dynasty for uttering comments that seem in character for a program whose conceit is an opportunity to see backwoods hunters at home, work, and play. But if they think the bearded stars of the hit show shouldn’t offend people in this manner, then they can discharge him–although the suspension for future work would make more sense if they took the reruns that continue to appear on their channel off the air too. Reality shows are peopled largely by outrageous figures that specialize in foolish or vulgar behavior. Jindal wasn’t entirely wrong when he said on Twitter that there was something faintly ridiculous that there was plenty of room in the entertainment business for a trashy vulgarian like Miley Cyrus but none for the likes of Robertson.

But hypocrisy works both ways. Those who are chortling about Jindal and Palin’s support for Robertson were silent when Bashir was trashing the former Alaska governor. Liberals are quick to seize on any outrageous thing said by a figure on the right and shrug their shoulders or ignore it when left-wing politicians, pundits, or TV talkers make hateful or prejudicial remarks.

What we need here is not so much more civility—though that would be nice—but some consistency when it comes to outrage. If you think gays shouldn’t be subjected to negative or prejudicial remarks on TV, then try to be just as interested when people of faith or conservatives are given the same treatment. The same advice applies to conservatives. Selective outrage that is only generated when someone whose political opinions you disagree with crosses the line is what is really turning our public square into a verbal junkyard.

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The Case Against Louisiana’s School Choice Program Crumbles

The school choice movement’s prospects can sometimes be measured by the quality of the arguments deployed against them. Egged on by organized labor, big-government Democrats have shunted aside their supposed concern for basic fairness in the service of preserving a flailing government education monopoly. Sometimes, the government couches its case against poor students in terms of “saving” public schools or reinforcing the separation of church and state.

But sometimes, the government is simply out of ammo and engages in the intellectual and legal equivalent of throwing a shoe. That’s what the Obama administration did when it dispatched Eric Holder’s Justice Department to make a sensationally offensive and clownishly ill-reasoned case against the Louisiana school choice program. It was desperation, pure and simple. And it should have been a humbling moment for the administration, a good time for the government to look itself in the mirror and wonder what it has become.

I wrote about this case back in August. Briefly, Louisiana put into place a program to give private-school vouchers to low-income students in failing public schools. Deprived of any meritorious argument against it, the Justice Department petitioned a district court to enjoin the state from offering scholarships to students from schools that are still under federal desegregation orders. The Holder Justice Department’s logic, such as it is, portrayed the voucher program as disrupting the racial balance of the schools by pulling minority students out of majority-white schools.

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The school choice movement’s prospects can sometimes be measured by the quality of the arguments deployed against them. Egged on by organized labor, big-government Democrats have shunted aside their supposed concern for basic fairness in the service of preserving a flailing government education monopoly. Sometimes, the government couches its case against poor students in terms of “saving” public schools or reinforcing the separation of church and state.

But sometimes, the government is simply out of ammo and engages in the intellectual and legal equivalent of throwing a shoe. That’s what the Obama administration did when it dispatched Eric Holder’s Justice Department to make a sensationally offensive and clownishly ill-reasoned case against the Louisiana school choice program. It was desperation, pure and simple. And it should have been a humbling moment for the administration, a good time for the government to look itself in the mirror and wonder what it has become.

I wrote about this case back in August. Briefly, Louisiana put into place a program to give private-school vouchers to low-income students in failing public schools. Deprived of any meritorious argument against it, the Justice Department petitioned a district court to enjoin the state from offering scholarships to students from schools that are still under federal desegregation orders. The Holder Justice Department’s logic, such as it is, portrayed the voucher program as disrupting the racial balance of the schools by pulling minority students out of majority-white schools.

As I wrote, this was a terrible and shameful argument. But thanks to two new studies, we also know that it is demonstrably false, and the government should drop its case against Louisiana’s minority students immediately:

The first study conducted out of the University of Arkansas found that these transfers overwhelmingly improved integration in the public schools that students leave as well as the private schools that participating students attend.

Of the 5,000 students who used LSP vouchers in the 2012-13 school year, all were from families with incomes less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line, and about 90 percent were black.

Specifically, the Arkansas study found, just 17 percent of LSP schools are racially homogenous, compared to over one-third of public schools that previously enrolled these students. In 83 percent of cases, an overwhelming majority, LSP transfers had a positive impact on the racial integration of the student’s original public school.

“Based on this evidence, we conclude that the LSP is unlikely to have harmed desegregation efforts in Louisiana,” the authors write. “To the contrary, the statewide school voucher program appears to have brought greater integration to Louisiana’s public schools.”

These findings were validated by a separate study by Christine Rossell of Boston University who was retained to analyze data for the DOJ case. Rossell concludes, “The 2012-13 Louisiana scholarship program to date has no negative effect on school desegregation in the 34 school districts under a desegregation court order.”

This should be the end of what was truly an act of desperation from a government agency convinced its will could not be disobeyed. And at the heart of this was a distorted view of desegregation and its purposes. Most of the students benefiting from this program are black. Holder’s DOJ argued that this means that a disproportionate number of black students are being given the opportunity to flee failing schools for better ones, leaving fewer black students behind.

To Holder’s DOJ, the “racial balance” of failing government schools is more important than actually improving life for racial minorities, which is what Bobby Jindal and the state’s leaders were trying to do. But now we know that the “racial balance” argument is a fallacy anyway. The school choice program improves both racial balance in schools and the educational freedom of the state’s minority students.

The government’s argument for suppressing minorities’ educational opportunities has completely dissolved. They should drop this case, accept the principle of equal educational opportunity for minorities, and get out of the way.

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The Shutdown Threat and 2016

One argument I’ve been making about the prospective class of 2016 GOP presidential candidates is that the divide between the governors and the senators redounds to the benefit of the governors. Coverage of the congressional battles fought since the Republicans took back control of the House of Representatives has focused mostly on the here and now: divided government and partisan bickering grinds Congress, and thus President Obama’s agenda, to a halt.

Both sides will argue whether it is in the best interests of the republic for the Democrats to be impeded, and will surely argue as well over the legality and constitutionality of Obama’s response, which is to simply vest the legislative powers of Congress in the White House for the time being. But what often goes unmentioned is the fact that the Republicans’ lack of power and the conservative grassroots’ antipathy toward major legislation means the rising stars of the Senate have thin resumes.

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One argument I’ve been making about the prospective class of 2016 GOP presidential candidates is that the divide between the governors and the senators redounds to the benefit of the governors. Coverage of the congressional battles fought since the Republicans took back control of the House of Representatives has focused mostly on the here and now: divided government and partisan bickering grinds Congress, and thus President Obama’s agenda, to a halt.

Both sides will argue whether it is in the best interests of the republic for the Democrats to be impeded, and will surely argue as well over the legality and constitutionality of Obama’s response, which is to simply vest the legislative powers of Congress in the White House for the time being. But what often goes unmentioned is the fact that the Republicans’ lack of power and the conservative grassroots’ antipathy toward major legislation means the rising stars of the Senate have thin resumes.

To correct this, conservative senators like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio have been like tired baseball players in extra innings swinging for the fences on every pitch, tantalized by the knowledge they are one well-timed swat from getting the win. Rubio did this by working with Democrats to get comprehensive immigration reform passed in the Senate, though it has languished in the House. Paul singlehandedly elevated his profile with the 13-hour talking filibuster over drones. And all three of them are now engaged in a high-stakes gamble by threatening to shut down the government unless Congress votes to de-fund ObamaCare.

The ploy is unlikely to be successful, but today the Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan argues that the three Republicans only stand to win by losing:

Why? Because Rubio, Cruz and Paul get to champion a plan that looks attractive to many conservatives in theory but could be politically disastrous in practice.

The trio of senators and possible 2016 presidential candidates is supportingpitch circulated by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that calls on lawmakers to not support any continuing resolution or appropriations bills that devote even a cent to funding President Obama’s health-care law. The plan has gained very little traction in the GOP Conference, despite a series of campaign-style events in August designed to build support for it.

Still, it’s getting the job done for the principals involved. Politically, at least.

I’m not sure I fully agree with the premise; my sense is that whatever the trio will gain politically will accrue to them whether or not the government gets shut down in the end, because that support is coming primarily from the base, which appreciates the attempt whatever the result. But it’s worth recalling that while the GOP governors don’t want the shutdown–because they worry about the effect on their own state economies–they also don’t need it, politically.

If Cruz, Paul, and Rubio end up running for president, and not much changes between now and then, they are going to be running on ideas–sometimes powerful ideas, powerfully expressed. But they might be going up against governors like Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Bobby Jindal, who can all boast of having taken on the unions and instituted much-needed reform.

In Christie’s case, he did this in a blue state, proving conservative policy can have mainstream appeal. In Jindal’s case, as I wrote this week, he is taking on the Obama administration’s Justice Department over school vouchers. And in Walker’s case, when the unions, media, and the rest of the American left went ballistic over his reforms, he outmaneuvered and defeated them at every turn.

The governors have another advantage: they don’t have to take difficult, inconvenient, or symbolic congressional votes. And that includes on de-funding ObamaCare. It’s true that the governors have counseled against shutting down the government over ObamaCare, but that’s different from actually voting the other way or standing against the grassroots tide represented by Ted Cruz. Sullivan’s logic, that since the shutdown won’t happen anyway its supporters need not worry about the consequences, rings true for the governors as well. If the shutdown fails, the governors can’t be blamed for it by the grassroots. If by chance it goes through, the governors won’t be responsible for the consequences.

That is not to say the senators should be blamed for swinging for the fences (though the various strategies are not all equal). They have to play the hand they were dealt, and that means accepting the confines of being leading lights in a party out of power. But there’s no question it puts the governors, at least for now, at an advantage.

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The Disparate Impact of Holder’s War on Private Schools

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the civil-rights milestone will continue to loom large in the ideological media. The right will talk about how much progress we’ve made, the left will talk about how far we have to go, and the president himself will give a speech marking the occasion this week in which he’ll talk both about the progress and the ground that must still be covered. His speech will be all the more powerful for the obvious symbolism, though the speech text will likely be thoughtful and somewhat moving in addition.

It is also a speech to which the president’s attorney general, Eric Holder, should listen carefully. His latest crusade is to sue the state of Louisiana for giving black students in failing public schools vouchers to attend better schools on the grounds that the voucher program is resegregating Louisiana’s public schools. That is not an exaggeration, and I have to admit to being somewhat hesitant to even write about this for fear that Holder is kidding–because, well, he has got to be kidding.

Here, for example, is the Holder DOJ’s logic, as expressed in a petition to get the district court to enjoin the state from awarding additional scholarships to students from school districts still under federal desegregation orders:

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As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the civil-rights milestone will continue to loom large in the ideological media. The right will talk about how much progress we’ve made, the left will talk about how far we have to go, and the president himself will give a speech marking the occasion this week in which he’ll talk both about the progress and the ground that must still be covered. His speech will be all the more powerful for the obvious symbolism, though the speech text will likely be thoughtful and somewhat moving in addition.

It is also a speech to which the president’s attorney general, Eric Holder, should listen carefully. His latest crusade is to sue the state of Louisiana for giving black students in failing public schools vouchers to attend better schools on the grounds that the voucher program is resegregating Louisiana’s public schools. That is not an exaggeration, and I have to admit to being somewhat hesitant to even write about this for fear that Holder is kidding–because, well, he has got to be kidding.

Here, for example, is the Holder DOJ’s logic, as expressed in a petition to get the district court to enjoin the state from awarding additional scholarships to students from school districts still under federal desegregation orders:

For example, in 2011-2012, Celilia Primary School in St. Martin Parish School District enrolled a student body that was 30.1 percent black, 16.4 [sic] percentage points lower than the black composition (64.5 percent) of St. Martin Parish School District as a whole. In 2012-2013 Celilia lost six black students as a result of the voucher program, thereby increasing the difference between the school’s black student percentage from the district’s and reinforcing the school’s racial identity as a white school in a predominantly black school district.

Got that? The school had a “racial identity” as a white school, and the state of Louisiana awarded scholarships to a group of black students to get them out of the white failing school and into a better private school. According to Eric Holder’s Justice Department, the Louisiana voucher program gave private school vouchers to too many black students. What this means in practice is that Holder would not challenge them on segregation grounds if, merely because of their race, the state allotted fewer vouchers to black students in favor of giving the scholarships to white students.

But the DOJ wasn’t done. The Justice Department wants to appear to be an equal-opportunity offender, crushing the hopes and educational futures of children of all races. So the DOJ found a school that the United States federal government says has too many black students and criticized the voucher program for selecting white students:

Similarly, the Independence Elementary School in Tangipahoa Parish School District enrolled a student body that was 61.5 percent black, which was only 14 percentage points greater than that of Tangipahoa Parish School District (47.5 percent black), but it lost five white students as a result of the voucher program and, thus, increased its black student percentage away from the district-wide black student percentage, again reinforcing the racial identity of the school as a black school.

But of course Holder isn’t an equal-opportunity offender: black students are absorbing the brunt of the Justice Department’s crusade against education. As the state explained:

While the federal petition would let courts approve vouchers in those school systems next year, Brian Blackwell, attorney for the Louisiana Association of Educators, said it likely would take a lot of time, effort and evidence to persuade the judges.

State Education Superintendent John White took issue with the suit’s primary argument and its characterization of the program. Almost all the students using vouchers are black, he said. Given that framework, “it’s a little ridiculous” to argue that students’ departure to voucher schools makes their home school systems less white, he said. He also thought it ironic that rules set up to combat racism were being called on to keep black students in failing schools.

Almost all the students using vouchers are black, according to the superintendent. This is a program largely designed to find ways to get black students stuck in failing schools an education. The government’s public-school monopoly, designed to enrich union bosses, is failing. The Louisiana government, under the leadership of Governor Bobby Jindal, isn’t willing to give up on those students, and is throwing them a rope. The United States Department of Justice, under the leadership of Eric Holder, will do anything to cut that rope.

The left likes to talk a lot about disparate impact. In ruling against the NYPD’s stop and frisk program, Judge Shira Scheindlin even found a new term for it–“indirect racial profiling.” So imagine what Democrats would make of a policy that disproportionately harmed black students trying to get a decent education if the partisan roles were reversed. In some ways, then, it’s appropriate that this incident coincides with the anniversary of a key moment in the fight for civil rights for black Americans. No one watching the behavior of this Justice Department, after all, could claim there are no longer government-sanctioned obstacles in their way.

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GOP Shouldn’t Fear Competitive Primary

I mentioned in my earlier post the fact that Hillary Clinton’s supposed inevitability in 2008 never materialized, and that few remember how central Clinton’s strength as a candidate was to her potential rival GOP campaigns. Few also seem to remember just how acrimonious was the drawn-out primary battle that eventually produced Barack Obama’s nomination. There were worries all along on the left that the vicious contest would split the Democratic Party and weaken the eventual nominee.

Neither happened, and Clinton eventually went on to serve as Obama’s secretary of state before getting Obama’s obvious support for her 2016 run. The party managed to avoid civil war as well as the attempts to nominate Al Gore–yes, Al Gore–on the second ballot at the Democratic National Convention that year. Despite that seemingly cheerful epilogue, some Republicans apparently worry that a drawn-out primary process could hamper the party’s hopes of taking back the White House in 2016–though this concern is slightly different than the Democrats’ 2008 version in that Republicans are unnerved by the sheer number of potential GOP candidates. They fear not a split, but a shattering, according to the Hill:

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I mentioned in my earlier post the fact that Hillary Clinton’s supposed inevitability in 2008 never materialized, and that few remember how central Clinton’s strength as a candidate was to her potential rival GOP campaigns. Few also seem to remember just how acrimonious was the drawn-out primary battle that eventually produced Barack Obama’s nomination. There were worries all along on the left that the vicious contest would split the Democratic Party and weaken the eventual nominee.

Neither happened, and Clinton eventually went on to serve as Obama’s secretary of state before getting Obama’s obvious support for her 2016 run. The party managed to avoid civil war as well as the attempts to nominate Al Gore–yes, Al Gore–on the second ballot at the Democratic National Convention that year. Despite that seemingly cheerful epilogue, some Republicans apparently worry that a drawn-out primary process could hamper the party’s hopes of taking back the White House in 2016–though this concern is slightly different than the Democrats’ 2008 version in that Republicans are unnerved by the sheer number of potential GOP candidates. They fear not a split, but a shattering, according to the Hill:

More than two dozen Republicans are eyeing the GOP presidential nomination, while on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton looks like she could coast to the crown.

Only a handful of Democrats are even circling Clinton, while the potential GOP field just continues to grow.

“To beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, you need a strong candidate,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said of his party’s 2016 contenders. “A crowded field has the potential to give Hillary a bigger leg up than she currently has.”

The contrast poses opportunities and threats for the GOP.

A winning candidate could emerge from a crowded primary stronger and battle tested, much as President Obama was strengthened from a 2008 primary fight with Clinton.

But a crowded primary could also weaken a GOP nominee by extending the fight and exhausting the eventual winner physically and financially.

Or, it could muddle things enough to allow a weaker nominee to emerge.

I’m not quite sure either of the assumptions underlying this concern holds up under scrutiny. Was Obama really “strengthened” by his battle with Clinton? On the other hand, he surely wasn’t weakened enough to lose or low enough on resources not to set records for campaign fundraising. That, I think, gets to the point of why these stories are logical but overheated: nominate a strong candidate, he will not be held back by the primary. Nominate a weak candidate, and it won’t matter.

Obama was a strong general-election candidate, and John McCain was not. Thus, the fact that Obama had a bitter struggle to gain the nomination while McCain effectively had his wrapped up by Super Tuesday had no real effect on the general election. It was Obama, not McCain, who was flush with cash. And it was McCain, not Obama, who had trouble uniting his party behind his candidacy.

As for the perception of the party among the general voting public, the number of candidates matters less than the quality of those candidates. The Hill goes on to name the prospective GOP candidates, and includes people like Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and Steve King. But the list of potential first-tier candidates who are more likely to actually run and to garner enough votes to participate in the televised debates goes something like this: Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, perhaps Paul Ryan and John Kasich.

There are others, but those names are the reason many conservatives have been optimistic about the future of the movement and the GOP. A popular perspective from the right is that a lineup like that is a good problem to have, and that you really can’t have too many good candidates at a time like this. Whether they actually turn out to be good candidates remains to be seen, of course. But if each of them didn’t have constituent appeal there would be no concern about splitting the vote.

The party will have its debate and choose its standard bearer, and that debate looks to be wide-ranging, diverse, and almost certainly contentious. But it’s doubtful conservatives would rather have a coronation.

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GOP’s Mixed Signals on Immigration

Earlier this week, John Stanton wrote a detailed piece on why Republicans in the House who vote for comprehensive immigration reform are not actually putting themselves at high risk of getting challenged in a Republican primary. Then National Journal released the results of its latest poll, which showed that Republicans support passing immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship as long as it toughens border security, backing up Stanton’s reporting.

But then Politico published a story on Marco Rubio’s immigration “stumbles,” arguing that even though the bill passed the Senate, conservative anger over the bill means that “this isn’t where Rubio wanted to be.” They, too, can point to new polling to back them up: the latest Washington Post/ABC poll finds a majority of Republicans oppose a path to citizenship for those here illegally. I sympathize with the Post’s Greg Sargent when he writes today of the conventional wisdom that conservative voters oppose a path to citizenship and asks, “Can’t some crack polling guru type get to the bottom of whether it’s even true or not?”

If we work backwards, however, it’s a bit easier to get to the bottom of this. The general sense of momentum is currently against the immigration bill, at least as passed by the Senate. But Stanton’s reporting is heavily documented, and the National Journal poll gives respondents enough choices to get a reasonably accurate read on where they’d like the bill to go from here. So what we’re looking for is an explanation for why there can be broad support for the aims of the bill that still puts Rubio in a difficult spot and which supports the idea that the bill is in trouble.

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Earlier this week, John Stanton wrote a detailed piece on why Republicans in the House who vote for comprehensive immigration reform are not actually putting themselves at high risk of getting challenged in a Republican primary. Then National Journal released the results of its latest poll, which showed that Republicans support passing immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship as long as it toughens border security, backing up Stanton’s reporting.

But then Politico published a story on Marco Rubio’s immigration “stumbles,” arguing that even though the bill passed the Senate, conservative anger over the bill means that “this isn’t where Rubio wanted to be.” They, too, can point to new polling to back them up: the latest Washington Post/ABC poll finds a majority of Republicans oppose a path to citizenship for those here illegally. I sympathize with the Post’s Greg Sargent when he writes today of the conventional wisdom that conservative voters oppose a path to citizenship and asks, “Can’t some crack polling guru type get to the bottom of whether it’s even true or not?”

If we work backwards, however, it’s a bit easier to get to the bottom of this. The general sense of momentum is currently against the immigration bill, at least as passed by the Senate. But Stanton’s reporting is heavily documented, and the National Journal poll gives respondents enough choices to get a reasonably accurate read on where they’d like the bill to go from here. So what we’re looking for is an explanation for why there can be broad support for the aims of the bill that still puts Rubio in a difficult spot and which supports the idea that the bill is in trouble.

The answer, I think, has a lot to do with the 2012 Republican primary election and the downfall of Rick Perry. Though Perry’s debate performances obviously had much to do with his freefall in the polls, the issue that hurt him the most was immigration. I think it goes too far to credit Perry’s pro-immigration stance solely or even mostly for his primary woes—Newt Gingrich, after all, took an almost identical position on immigration and it didn’t slow him down—but there’s no question it was a major factor. The pushback Perry got for telling voters to “have a heart” when dealing with illegal immigrants and their children inspired Mitt Romney to bolt to his right on the issue and make his infamous suggestion that illegal immigrants “self-deport.”

Most Republicans learned a lesson from that incident—but they didn’t all learn the same lesson. Republicans who were inclined to support immigration reform believed Romney’s self-deportation idea was the inevitable result of trying to square a circle: the status quo on immigration policy in America is a wreck, but if you want to pander to border hawks without ludicrously advocating for the deportation of 11 million immigrants, your policy essentially amounts to wishing the problem away. And expressing the sentiment that you want those immigrants to somehow disappear while also not offering a realistic solution to the immigration impasse is a surefire way to get clobbered in a national election among immigrant groups, which Romney did.

But those more inclined to believe a bipartisan immigration reform plan would simply amount to a mass amnesty without alleviating the conditions that brought the crisis about in the first place learned a very different lesson. They saw Perry’s collapse in the polls following his immigration remarks as proof that Republican voters by and large had rejected the McCain-led reform effort a few years earlier and were plain fed-up with the fact that they were now being called heartless for simply not changing their minds.

The message they heard was: What part of “No” don’t you understand? And though early-state Republican primary voters are not usually thought to be representative of all right-of-center Americans (it’s become more of a tradition to complain about the Iowa straw poll and caucuses than to treat them as a bellwether), the presidential candidates drive the news more than other politicians, and they drive the perception of the party as well.

That’s why it was so significant for Rubio to lead the reform effort, and why he tried to get Rand Paul to sign on. The current zeitgeist of the party’s grass roots is not going to be divined by listening to where Lindsey Graham or Steve King stands on an issue. The public is always going to pay more attention to the politicians who may be their next president—or at least a major party nominee. Rubio may support this bill, but Ted Cruz voted against it, as did Rand Paul. Bobby Jindal may be sympathetic to the cause of immigration reform, but he came out against the Senate bill too. Both Scott Walker and Chris Christie seemed reluctant to specifically endorse the Senate bill.

What you have, then, is Marco Rubio supporting his own bill—and pretty much everyone else on the 2016 slate, on both sides of the immigration debate, treating Rubio’s bill as if it were radioactive. It’s not surprising that different polls received conflicting answers depending on the wording of the poll question, but neither is it surprising that when it comes to prominent prospective GOP presidential candidates, Rubio has essentially been left to stand alone, and the public has noticed.

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Rubio’s Response: Risks and Rewards

When Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a whip-smart wonk and naturally competent executive, was tapped to give the Republican response to a February 2009 address by President Obama, it was considered something of an audition for a presidential run in 2012. The speech, however, bombed, and the presidential run never materialized. “Jindal’s Response to Obama Address Panned by Fellow Republicans” was the headline in the following day’s Bloomberg story on the speech, and one Republican strategist summed up the disappointment on the right when he told Bloomberg that “A lot of Republicans I am speaking with were expecting this would be like Obama’s moment in 2004”–the entrance of a star onto the national stage.

Jindal, of course, recovered from the speech just fine and went on to easily win reelection and continue to govern impressively in Louisiana. He retains his stature as a conservative reformer and leading light of the party, as well as a refreshingly intellectual and affect-free politician. A difficult entry into national politics is not the end of the world–just ask Bill Clinton, whose 1988 Democratic National Convention speech was a disaster. But it can dim the buzz around a rising political star and delay the moment when even a good politician finally gains national traction. So a cost-benefit analysis must be conducted by any aspiring political leader with the opportunity to respond to the president’s State of the Union speech, which this year will be given by Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Those wondering why Rubio accepted the address may have received an answer today when Quinnipiac released their latest public approval polling data:

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When Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a whip-smart wonk and naturally competent executive, was tapped to give the Republican response to a February 2009 address by President Obama, it was considered something of an audition for a presidential run in 2012. The speech, however, bombed, and the presidential run never materialized. “Jindal’s Response to Obama Address Panned by Fellow Republicans” was the headline in the following day’s Bloomberg story on the speech, and one Republican strategist summed up the disappointment on the right when he told Bloomberg that “A lot of Republicans I am speaking with were expecting this would be like Obama’s moment in 2004”–the entrance of a star onto the national stage.

Jindal, of course, recovered from the speech just fine and went on to easily win reelection and continue to govern impressively in Louisiana. He retains his stature as a conservative reformer and leading light of the party, as well as a refreshingly intellectual and affect-free politician. A difficult entry into national politics is not the end of the world–just ask Bill Clinton, whose 1988 Democratic National Convention speech was a disaster. But it can dim the buzz around a rising political star and delay the moment when even a good politician finally gains national traction. So a cost-benefit analysis must be conducted by any aspiring political leader with the opportunity to respond to the president’s State of the Union speech, which this year will be given by Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Those wondering why Rubio accepted the address may have received an answer today when Quinnipiac released their latest public approval polling data:

Ms. Clinton’s favorability is higher than those measured for other national figures:

46 – 41 percent for Vice President Joseph Biden;

25 – 29 percent for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, with 45 percent who don’t know enough about him to form an opinion;

20 – 42 percent for House Speaker John Boehner;

27 – 15 percent for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, with 57 percent who don’t know enough;

34 – 36 percent for U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan;

43 – 33 percent for new Secretary of State John Kerry;

14 – 18 percent for Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, with 67 percent who don’t know enough about him.

Rubio’s numbers show that he is not well known nationally, but that those who do know enough about him to register an opinion tend to approve of him. This would have to be part of any of the senator’s calculations with regard to the State of the Union response. It is a difficult spot for any politician because the president is the leader of the free world conducting a tradition full of pomp and circumstance which puts this power dynamic on full display. It is also a long speech generally, which means those watching at home may be tired of listening to political speechmaking.

It can also be a difficult audience for the politician tasked with responding, because many viewers at home will not have had time to digest the speech and decide where exactly they come down on the policy facets of the address, and the response can be seen as abrupt. There is also the challenge of partisanship: the president will say a great many things that command broad public support, and will couch his policy prescriptions in aspirational tones meant to rise above the partisan fray (though President Obama is uniquely poor at this, given to taking cheap shots at both audience members and Republican figures working behind the scenes). As such, given the tension and rancor in Washington, there is always the danger of appearing ill-tempered and ungenerous at the wrong moment for the opposition politician who follows the president.

Yet there are also rewards to go along with the risks of appearing on such a stage. These include, prominently, the opportunity for a politician to introduce himself to the national electorate long before a debate-heavy primary process or general election in which both campaigns are inevitably jolted by an injection of negative advertising. The old adage about getting one chance to make a first impression is no less applicable to national politics. Letting your opponent define you can be among the most damaging mistakes to make in any election. The stakes are even higher for someone like Rubio, who tends to win over his audience–as the Quinnipiac poll shows.

Rubio’s summer appearance on “The Daily Show” was one such example of this, but so was his willingness to champion an immigration reform process vocally opposed by talk radio commentators like Rush Limbaugh and then impress Limbaugh enough to win his praise after appearing on Limbaugh’s radio show. If Rubio is truly contemplating a run for president in 2016, he is unlikely to pass up an opportunity to introduce himself, on his own terms, to as many American voters as possible.

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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.

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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.

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Jindal, Brownback, and the State-Led Conservative Opposition

Since the one bright spot for Republicans in this past November’s general election was the party’s performance in gubernatorial elections, it’s no surprise that the states have become battlegrounds for conservative opposition to the Obama White House. The GOP increased its share of the country’s governorships to 30, and well before November had been leaning on those governors for conservative policymaking. The most visible issue was the role and power of public-sector unions, something John Steele Gordon wrote about earlier, but education reform and the battle over state health insurance exchanges as part of Obamacare have been and will continue to be high-profile policy fights as well.

Energized by a string of such victories, Republican governors seem to have identified the next element of President Obama’s big-government agenda to push back on: taxes. A recent USA Today story details plans to cut certain taxes (and in some cases, raise others to compensate) from Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, Ohio’s John Kasich, New Mexico’s Susana Martinez, Florida’s Rick Scott, Idaho’s Butch Otter, and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal. Today, the New York Times reports on Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s dramatic tax cut plan:

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Since the one bright spot for Republicans in this past November’s general election was the party’s performance in gubernatorial elections, it’s no surprise that the states have become battlegrounds for conservative opposition to the Obama White House. The GOP increased its share of the country’s governorships to 30, and well before November had been leaning on those governors for conservative policymaking. The most visible issue was the role and power of public-sector unions, something John Steele Gordon wrote about earlier, but education reform and the battle over state health insurance exchanges as part of Obamacare have been and will continue to be high-profile policy fights as well.

Energized by a string of such victories, Republican governors seem to have identified the next element of President Obama’s big-government agenda to push back on: taxes. A recent USA Today story details plans to cut certain taxes (and in some cases, raise others to compensate) from Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, Ohio’s John Kasich, New Mexico’s Susana Martinez, Florida’s Rick Scott, Idaho’s Butch Otter, and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal. Today, the New York Times reports on Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s dramatic tax cut plan:

This month, the largest tax cut in Kansas history took effect, and most of its Medicaid system was handed over to private insurers. The bill introduced this week would pare taxes further, with the goal of eventually eliminating the state’s individual income tax. Mr. Brownback has already slashed the state’s welfare roll and its work force. He has merged government agencies and is proposing further consolidation. He is pushing for pension changes, to change the way judges are selected and for altering education financing formulas.

“I think it is the leading edge of the conservative economic and political movement,” said State Representative Tom Sloan, a Republican representing the area around Lawrence. “As such, it is the example that other state leaders will look to to determine whether the political philosophy can mesh with the expectations of the public.”

The Washington-centric focus of the press and the drama over negotiations between the Republican-controlled House and the Obama White House tend to overshadow the far-reaching economic reforms taking place at the state level. And that focus is exactly what Jindal plans to take aim at in his keynote speech tonight to the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting. Jindal, who has been at the forefront of conservative education reform and is a possible contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, plans to argue forcefully against his own party’s concentration on Washington. As the Washington Post reports:

“By obsessing with zeroes on the budget spreadsheet, we send a not-so-subtle signal that the focus of our country is on the phony economy of Washington, instead of the real economy out here in Charlotte, and Shreveport (La.), and Cheyenne (Wyo.),” Jindal is set to say at one point in the speech. At another, he will argue that “Washington has spent a generation trying to bribe our citizens and extort our states,” adding: “As Republicans, it’s time to quit arguing around the edges of that corrupt system.”

It will be interesting to see just how clearly Jindal can pair his critique of Washington with a conservative alternative. On the broad strokes, Jindal is certainly correct: Washington’s buddy system and its self-perpetuating bureaucracy make it ripe both for bad policy and for cronyism that often too easily seduces Republicans as well as Democrats.

But there’s also a trap here Jindal is setting for himself, and his party. Conservatives are on firm ground when they talk of the need to reform Washington, but they should be careful not to treat the capital as incidental. Congress’s approval ratings may be low, and there is certainly a limited amount of policymaking the GOP can do with only one house of Congress and Harry Reid’s refusal to permit even basic Senate business from taking place in the other house. But conservatives should learn the right lesson: they need to be in a position to legislate.

Nothing proved this more clearly than the Obamacare debacle. Republicans didn’t have enough seats in Congress to block it, and then Chief Justice John Roberts allowed himself to be bullied and intimidated into ruling in favor of the president’s constitutionally suspect legislative overreach out of concern for his legacy and his public stature rather than his own best judgment. Roberts is an example of how the conservative movement cannot rely on the courts to protect the country from unconstitutional big-government schemes. Conservatives have the right idea on state-level reform to act as a bulwark against some of the terrible policy coming from the White House. But they also can’t ignore the battles on Capitol Hill.

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The Age of the GOP Governors

Yesterday a landmark event happened in Michigan. The Wolverine State–which is not simply home of the United Auto Workers but in many respects is the birthplace of the modern labor movement–has become the 24th state to ban compulsory union fees. Workers will no longer be required to pay union fees as a condition of employment. And if history–and other states, like Indiana–is any guide, this action will not only grant workers freedom but also attract new businesses to Michigan. (Michigan desperately needs this, since it has the sixth-highest state jobless rate in America at 9.1 percent.) 

This move came after unions once again overshot, having tried to enshrine collective bargaining into the state constitution (through Proposition 2).  

“Everybody has this image of Michigan as a labor state,” Bill Ballenger, the editor of Inside Michigan Politics, told the New York Times. “But organized labor has been losing clout, and the Republicans saw an opportunity, and now the chickens are coming home to roost.”

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Yesterday a landmark event happened in Michigan. The Wolverine State–which is not simply home of the United Auto Workers but in many respects is the birthplace of the modern labor movement–has become the 24th state to ban compulsory union fees. Workers will no longer be required to pay union fees as a condition of employment. And if history–and other states, like Indiana–is any guide, this action will not only grant workers freedom but also attract new businesses to Michigan. (Michigan desperately needs this, since it has the sixth-highest state jobless rate in America at 9.1 percent.) 

This move came after unions once again overshot, having tried to enshrine collective bargaining into the state constitution (through Proposition 2).  

“Everybody has this image of Michigan as a labor state,” Bill Ballenger, the editor of Inside Michigan Politics, told the New York Times. “But organized labor has been losing clout, and the Republicans saw an opportunity, and now the chickens are coming home to roost.”

This victory was important, then, both substantively and politically. And it brought into sharper focus the best news about the GOP these days: Governors. Despite a very disappointing showing at the federal level in November, at the state level things are quite encouraging. Republicans now control 30 governorships–the highest number for either party in a dozen years. (Democrats control 19 governorships and Rhode Island has an independent governor.) 

Moreover, many of the brightest stars in the conservative constellation are governors–people like Mitch Daniels (Indiana), Bob McDonnell (Virginia), Scott Walker (Wisconsin), Bobby Jindal (Louisiana), Chris Christie (New Jersey), John Kasich (Ohio), Susana Martinez (New Mexico), and Nikki Haley (South Carolina), as well as former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

These men and women are models for governance: conservative, reform-minded, growth-oriented, and interested in what works. They tend to be principled but not ideological. They’re problem solvers, they have to balance their budgets, and they are generally popular in their states. As a general rule they practice politics in a way that doesn’t deepen mistrust or cynicism among the citizens of their states.

This period reminds me a bit of the 1990s, when many of the best reforms (in areas like welfare and education) were coming from governors. That’s certainly the case today. And it’s why many on the right were hoping that in 2012 the best of the current class, Mitch Daniels, had run for president of the United States (he opted for becoming, starting next year, president of Purdue University). For now, Republicans could hardly do better than to turn their lonely eyes to state capitals throughout the country.

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Jindal: The Republican Party Is a Wreck

Thanks to reports about the Romney campaign’s internal polling problems, disastrous get-out-the-vote schemes, and some of the inevitable internecine finger pointing that follows the loss of a presidential election, the dust hasn’t yet settled on the Romney campaign’s post-mortems. But as the soul searching begins to shift to judging the GOP on the whole, Bobby Jindal would like that judgment to be harsh.

The Republican governor of Louisiana, a popular 41-year-old reformer with a reputation for competent management and policy expertise, unloaded on the Republican Party in an interview with Politico. Jindal criticized Romney’s “47 percent” remarks, but made clear he understands that the right has a branding problem it cannot lay at the feet of its nominee this year:

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Thanks to reports about the Romney campaign’s internal polling problems, disastrous get-out-the-vote schemes, and some of the inevitable internecine finger pointing that follows the loss of a presidential election, the dust hasn’t yet settled on the Romney campaign’s post-mortems. But as the soul searching begins to shift to judging the GOP on the whole, Bobby Jindal would like that judgment to be harsh.

The Republican governor of Louisiana, a popular 41-year-old reformer with a reputation for competent management and policy expertise, unloaded on the Republican Party in an interview with Politico. Jindal criticized Romney’s “47 percent” remarks, but made clear he understands that the right has a branding problem it cannot lay at the feet of its nominee this year:

“It is no secret we had a number of Republicans damage our brand this year with offensive, bizarre comments — enough of that,” Jindal said. “It’s not going to be the last time anyone says something stupid within our party, but it can’t be tolerated within our party. We’ve also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism. We need to stop being simplistic, we need to trust the intelligence of the American people and we need to stop insulting the intelligence of the voters.”

Calling on the GOP to be “the party of ideas, details and intelligent solutions,” the Louisianan urged the party to “stop reducing everything to mindless slogans, tag lines, 30-second ads that all begin to sound the same.”

Jindal, who was a frequent suggestion for vice presidential nominee this cycle and is expected to at least consider running in 2016, was critical–but on target. Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan are both energetic policy-oriented politicians, which explains in part why they ran ahead of the party’s Senate candidates. Some of those Senate candidates imploded–both Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock lost surefire GOP seats by making comments about rape–but what about the rest of the candidates?

As the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote last week, nine other Republican candidates ran behind Romney, even in states Romney won. That means the scenario many conservatives feared–that Romney was a lackluster nominee who would hurt Republican enthusiasm and thus down-ticket candidates–was flipped on its head. Romney and Ryan energized conservatives to the point the right thought it was sailing to victory, while Republicans running in down-ticket races underperformed even with GOP enthusiasm. (You could even make the case that the “rape” comments and the like fed an anti-GOP narrative that hurt Romney.) Here’s Blake:

In five races, the GOP candidate under-performed Romney by at least nine points. This includes Reps. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) and Rick Berg (R-N.D.), who both lost in states that Romney carried by at least 13 points. (Maine is a bit of a special case, since there was a third-party candidate in the Senate race.)…

But even if you look at only the open seat contests, the GOP under-performed in most of those races — up to and including two people who won: Rep. Jeff Flake (R) in Arizona and state Sen. Deb Fischer (R) in Nebraska.

Jindal took a reform-minded tone in his interview with Politico, advocating tougher regulation of the big banks (an idea gaining steam on the right), reforming the tax code, a comprehensive approach to energy production, and school choice. The latter two are areas of particular expertise for Jindal, who recently enacted his own education reform in Louisiana and expanded offshore oil drilling.

He was, however, lukewarm on the subject of immigration reform, suggesting the newfound support on the right for policies once derided as “amnesty” is far from universal, and would also pit Jindal against some of the other GOPers thought to be viable 2016 candidates. Nonetheless, Jindal’s comments indicate a recognition that although President Obama won reelection convincingly, he did so while leaving major issues–education, energy, immigration, financial regulation–on the table for creative, reformist Republicans intent on rebranding the party in their image.

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Is Paul Ryan the Leader of the Conservative Movement?

When the Republican Party took back control of the House in 1994, a confluence of events combined to make it even more of a watershed moment than it would otherwise have been. The fact that the GOP had been out of power in Congress for four decades gave it an “underdog” storyline. Newt Gingrich, who led the “revolution,” was combustible and charismatic and understood better than most politicians of his time–especially his fellow Republicans–how to garner attention and win a news cycle. And CNN’s breakthrough coverage of the first Gulf War a few years earlier created a new cable TV news landscape perfectly set up to cover the Gingrich-Clinton drama as it unfolded.

The Republican takeover that year had lasting effects, not least because of the fact that Republicans suddenly kept winning, even as they became more politically conservative and developed a party agenda that was more than just standing athwart the Democrats’ plans yelling “Stop.” That post-1994 new normal held steady until the first Obama term and this election season, combined with the new prominence of social media and grassroots conservative fundraising prowess, created another such political tectonic shift: the rise of the fiscal conservative reformers. And there is perhaps no more recognizable leader of this conservative core than vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan.

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When the Republican Party took back control of the House in 1994, a confluence of events combined to make it even more of a watershed moment than it would otherwise have been. The fact that the GOP had been out of power in Congress for four decades gave it an “underdog” storyline. Newt Gingrich, who led the “revolution,” was combustible and charismatic and understood better than most politicians of his time–especially his fellow Republicans–how to garner attention and win a news cycle. And CNN’s breakthrough coverage of the first Gulf War a few years earlier created a new cable TV news landscape perfectly set up to cover the Gingrich-Clinton drama as it unfolded.

The Republican takeover that year had lasting effects, not least because of the fact that Republicans suddenly kept winning, even as they became more politically conservative and developed a party agenda that was more than just standing athwart the Democrats’ plans yelling “Stop.” That post-1994 new normal held steady until the first Obama term and this election season, combined with the new prominence of social media and grassroots conservative fundraising prowess, created another such political tectonic shift: the rise of the fiscal conservative reformers. And there is perhaps no more recognizable leader of this conservative core than vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan.

As much influence as the Tea Party-affiliated members of Congress have been able to exert over the legislative affairs of the country, the Republican Party is still clearly at a crossroads. Mitt Romney’s nomination was the result of many factors, but it was not because he leads a movement within the party. No strand of the conservative movement, therefore, was elevated above the others by Romney’s successful bid for the GOP presidential nomination. That is one reason there was so much interest, especially on the right, in Romney’s choice of vice presidential nominee.

What would a President Romney’s agenda look like? Many suggested that question would be answered as much by his running mate as anything else. But above all, Romney had the ability to elevate a conservative (or moderate Republican) and that person’s followers within the party. There were plenty of strong choices for the veep position because there are so many talented rising stars in the party: Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Susana Martinez, Kelly Ayotte, and others. But the one that stood out the most to Romney was also the one with arguably the broadest coalition within the party and among the conservative movement: Paul Ryan.

When considering potential presidential nominees for 2016 if Obama wins reelection, we can probably take Jim DeMint’s name off the list, as he is unlikely to run. Jeb Bush is a wild card: many will say he missed his window, or that he won’t run against Rubio, but he would also attract immediate support from across the party spectrum. It makes sense for Rand Paul to run, I suppose, if only to build his base and his following the way his father did. But I doubt he’d be much of a threat to the others. Jindal is immensely qualified, but it’s unclear if he can thrive on the national stage.

Ideologically, however, both Ryan and Rubio are in good standing with each of the party’s wings. On budgetary issues, most of the young conservatives are on the same page. But judging from the response to the various speeches at the Republican National Convention, the party remains closer on foreign policy to both John McCain’s hawkishness and Condoleezza Rice’s muscular realism than to Rand Paul’s retrenchment. (I don’t think the term “isolationist” is accurate, especially since isolationism used to mean opposition to free trade.) And on social issues, the party remains strongly pro-life.

Would that last one exclude Christie? He is pro-life, but not especially fond of legislating his preferences on social issues. There is probably one more category of conservative worth mentioning: the intellectual wing of the movement. This wing is often more moderate, and therefore at odds with the grassroots base, but still has a high degree of influence within the party and may be best positioned to advance ideas, if not candidacies.

Many of the rising stars in the party would attract their support, and that certainly includes Paul Ryan. And now there is one more advantage for Ryan: even if Romney loses, Ryan will be the lone member of this presidential ticket still vying for prominence within the Republican Party. It does not quite make him a standard bearer, but I think it’s close enough. He has been touring the country making the case for conservatism, and he would garner support from each faction of the movement. So would others, surely. But Ryan may wake up on Wednesday the vice president-elect of the United States, and that means something.

If Romney wins tomorrow, Ryan is undoubtedly first in line, at least for the time being, to inherit the party. But even if he loses tomorrow he is poised to make that claim anyway. That means the conservative grassroots would be elevated to prominence right along with him, solidifying this tectonic shift.

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The Point of Chris Christie’s Keynote

As Jonathan mentioned, aside from the as-yet-unidentified “special guest” speaker at this week’s GOP convention, the most anticipated speech is probably tonight’s keynote from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie has certainly raised expectations, not just for the speech but for his gubernatorial tenure as well. Famous for his confrontational style and honesty, there is a certain degree of pressure on Christie to leave a legacy in New Jersey that matches the rhetoric.

But what those tempted to dismiss his tough talk as mere bluster don’t quite seem to understand is that, in many ways, the rhetoric has already fundamentally altered the state’s politics and the national conversation on important issues. As Jonathan Last wrote in a dispatch from the convention this morning:

Since 1954 the Garden State had had only two successful Republican governors. Tom Kean and Christine Todd Whitman were both impressive politicians, yet they were technocrats. They made the state government function by maneuvering within the existing political culture.

Christie is different; he’s remade New Jersey’s political landscape. “The political culture has changed,” says state senator Joe Kyrillos. “People aren’t afraid to talk about things that were once taboo.” Public-sector unions, deficits, spending—subjects that used to lurk in the shadowy mists of abstract policy discussion—are now the meat and potatoes of New Jersey politics. And that’s all because of Christie, who possesses the political version of Steve Jobs’s legendary reality-distortion field. “Through the sheer force of his personality he has reshaped the political culture of the state,” Kyrillos says. And Kyrillos isn’t just saying that. He’s testing the hypothesis by running against incumbent Democratic senator Bob Menendez.

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As Jonathan mentioned, aside from the as-yet-unidentified “special guest” speaker at this week’s GOP convention, the most anticipated speech is probably tonight’s keynote from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie has certainly raised expectations, not just for the speech but for his gubernatorial tenure as well. Famous for his confrontational style and honesty, there is a certain degree of pressure on Christie to leave a legacy in New Jersey that matches the rhetoric.

But what those tempted to dismiss his tough talk as mere bluster don’t quite seem to understand is that, in many ways, the rhetoric has already fundamentally altered the state’s politics and the national conversation on important issues. As Jonathan Last wrote in a dispatch from the convention this morning:

Since 1954 the Garden State had had only two successful Republican governors. Tom Kean and Christine Todd Whitman were both impressive politicians, yet they were technocrats. They made the state government function by maneuvering within the existing political culture.

Christie is different; he’s remade New Jersey’s political landscape. “The political culture has changed,” says state senator Joe Kyrillos. “People aren’t afraid to talk about things that were once taboo.” Public-sector unions, deficits, spending—subjects that used to lurk in the shadowy mists of abstract policy discussion—are now the meat and potatoes of New Jersey politics. And that’s all because of Christie, who possesses the political version of Steve Jobs’s legendary reality-distortion field. “Through the sheer force of his personality he has reshaped the political culture of the state,” Kyrillos says. And Kyrillos isn’t just saying that. He’s testing the hypothesis by running against incumbent Democratic senator Bob Menendez.

Having grown up in the Garden State, and working as a reporter there as well, I can tell you that Last’s bit about the “reality-distortion field” is spot-on. There are times when something sounds great in your head, but significantly less so once you say it out loud. And then there are times when something sounds ridiculous until spoken aloud, when it suddenly makes perfect sense. Christie’s reforms, in the context of New Jersey’s political conversation, were an example of the latter.

And he is, of course, far from the only politician challenging the public union status quo. There are other Republicans, like Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal, who have done so. And there are even Northeastern Democrats, like New York’s Andrew Cuomo, who may have only made modest changes, but in Albany that’s not nothing.

The point is not that the tough rhetoric is sufficient—Christie has already enacted meaningful reforms, as have Walker and Jindal. It’s that those reforms were made possible by first changing the conversation. Support for such reforms has grown nationally, and that’s not because the idea suddenly popped into voters’ minds—voters who just a few years ago would never have considered such proposals. Chris Christie may be entertaining to watch and listen to, but he isn’t at the convention this year to entertain. Everyone in that room tonight should be taking notes.

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Ayotte Veep Speculation Mounts

VP buzz around Sen. Kelly Ayotte was already growing before she joined the Romney clan on vacation in New Hampshire yesterday. But Ann Romney has thrown fuel on it by telling CBS the campaign has been considering a female VP pick:

Ann Romney says her husband is considering a woman for the ticket—and admitted she’s been playing a big role in the VP search, too, according to an interview with CBS News.

“We’ve been looking at that,” Ann Romney replied, when asked if her husband should pick a female as his No. 2. “I’d love that option as well. So, you know, there’s a lot of people that Mitt is considering right now.”

While she had previously suggested she wasn’t playing a major role in the VP search, Ann Romney admitted she’s been giving the process “a lot of thought, actually” and has been offering her husband advice on his choice.

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VP buzz around Sen. Kelly Ayotte was already growing before she joined the Romney clan on vacation in New Hampshire yesterday. But Ann Romney has thrown fuel on it by telling CBS the campaign has been considering a female VP pick:

Ann Romney says her husband is considering a woman for the ticket—and admitted she’s been playing a big role in the VP search, too, according to an interview with CBS News.

“We’ve been looking at that,” Ann Romney replied, when asked if her husband should pick a female as his No. 2. “I’d love that option as well. So, you know, there’s a lot of people that Mitt is considering right now.”

While she had previously suggested she wasn’t playing a major role in the VP search, Ann Romney admitted she’s been giving the process “a lot of thought, actually” and has been offering her husband advice on his choice.

Ann Romney doesn’t specify, but who else could she be referring to other than Ayotte? The chatter about Condoleezza Rice never seemed serious, and a Tea Party favorite like Nikki Haley would draw instant comparisons to Sarah Palin. Speculation about NM Gov. Susana Martinez also seems to have tapered down after this email flap. Ayotte is still a first-term senator, but she’s already impressed the party establishment, and she’s been a prominent and effective surrogate for Romney. That said, it would still be a bit surprising if she’s being considered seriously. If Marco Rubio’s lack of experience supposedly kept him off the short list, then why would it be any different with Ayotte? They’re both freshman senators, and both very capable on the campaign trail. Maybe this is a sign there was a deeper issue plaguing Rubio?

It’s also possible that Ayotte is being vetted as a possibility (as Rubio is) but hasn’t made it onto the short list. That’s what Erin McPike surmises at RCP:

Mitt Romney may be tight-lipped about his vice presidential short list, warning that only he and longtime aide Beth Myers know who is on it, but a close examination of the campaign’s activity suggests four contenders have risen through the ranks: Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell may be considered wild cards, and Romney has said he’s thoroughly vetting Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, though the first-term lawmaker’s status appears unchanged.

That’s an interesting top four. Portman and Pawlenty are obviously very different picks than Ryan and Jindal. The first two are the safe and bland route, the second two would be far more exciting but riskier. Ryan in particular would be a game-changing choice, instantly turning the race into a referendum on his Path to Prosperity plan. Conservatives would love the opportunity to have that debate, but it would also be an uncharacteristically bold decision for Romney. Then there’s the question of whether Ryan would accept.

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Bipartisan “Birtherism” Emerges

It got lost in the shuffle on Tuesday night as most of us were focused on Mitt Romney’s big Florida win and Newt Gingrich’s graceless and weird non-concession speech, but conservative personality Joseph Farah said something on Sean Hannity’s “Fox News” program that is a reminder of just how crazy contemporary politics can get. Farah was on a panel with Bob Beckel and Gretchen Hamel when the question of possible Republican vice presidential candidates came up:

“[Sen. Marco] Rubio’s not eligible,” Farah said.

“What do you mean?” host Sean Hannity asked.

“You’re going to lose 10% of the Republican vote because he is not a natural born citizen. We’ve been through this with Obama now for four years,” Farah explained.

“I don’t believe that. I don’t think that’s going to work,” Hannity said.

Hannity is, of course, right. This bizarre attack on Rubio won’t work because Rubio was born in Miami and therefore is a natural born citizen of the United States and ten percent of Republican voters aren’t nuts. But this exchange illustrates just how deep-seated the virus of conspiracy mongering is in our political culture. After eight years of crackpot lies about George W. Bush and 9/11 that was followed by three plus years of Obama birth certificate lunacy, we have now arrived at a point where “birtherism” is a bipartisan form of insanity.

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It got lost in the shuffle on Tuesday night as most of us were focused on Mitt Romney’s big Florida win and Newt Gingrich’s graceless and weird non-concession speech, but conservative personality Joseph Farah said something on Sean Hannity’s “Fox News” program that is a reminder of just how crazy contemporary politics can get. Farah was on a panel with Bob Beckel and Gretchen Hamel when the question of possible Republican vice presidential candidates came up:

“[Sen. Marco] Rubio’s not eligible,” Farah said.

“What do you mean?” host Sean Hannity asked.

“You’re going to lose 10% of the Republican vote because he is not a natural born citizen. We’ve been through this with Obama now for four years,” Farah explained.

“I don’t believe that. I don’t think that’s going to work,” Hannity said.

Hannity is, of course, right. This bizarre attack on Rubio won’t work because Rubio was born in Miami and therefore is a natural born citizen of the United States and ten percent of Republican voters aren’t nuts. But this exchange illustrates just how deep-seated the virus of conspiracy mongering is in our political culture. After eight years of crackpot lies about George W. Bush and 9/11 that was followed by three plus years of Obama birth certificate lunacy, we have now arrived at a point where “birtherism” is a bipartisan form of insanity.

Farah ought to know. He’s spent much of the last few years promoting myths about Barack Obama not being an American citizen though there was never any rational reason to doubt he was born in Hawaii. Even after the Obama birth certificate was produced, Farah stuck to his wacko guns and predictably claimed it was a forgery.

But though Farah is a conservative of a sort, his “birtherism” is bipartisan as he is now backing the notion that both Rubio and fellow Republican Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal are not eligible for the presidency or vice presidency.

As far as Rubio and Jindal are concerned, Farah knows there is no way he can cast doubt on their birth on American soil. So what he has done now is to promote the fraudulent claim that in order to be a natural born citizen as required by the Constitution, not only must the individual be born in the United States but the parents must also be American citizens at the time of the birth. Rubio’s parents were Cuban immigrants who became citizens a few years after their child was born. The same was true for Jindal. But this makes no sense as U.S. citizenship has always been automatic in the case of any child born in the country. Nor has the law ever been interpreted as referring to anyone’s citizenship but the child’s.

After years of ranting about Obama’s eligibility, I suppose it was only natural for the universe of conspiracy theorists to want to latch onto a new absurdity. But anyone who thinks this will prevent Rubio from being nominated or elected to the vice presidency needs to emerge from their survivalist bunkers and get some fresh air.

Farah’s attempt to cast doubt on Rubio ought to be a warning to responsible media figures to be wary of inviting him or any other birther onto their shows. Along with the 9/11 truthers, the birthers need to be quarantined and confined to the fever swamps of political insanity, where they belong.

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LIVE BLOG: Paul Ryan

The Republican response — indeed, the opposition-party response — to the State of the Union is usually the graveyard of upward ambitions. Not tonight. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman, is giving what is certainly the best such response in memory, and will — and should — spark serious talk about him as the Republican nominee next year. He has said flatly he’s not running. Maybe it would be wiser for a 41-year-old like Ryan to wait until 2016. But this speech reminds us that the deep bench of younger politicians — with Ryan and Marco Rubio and Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, among many others — really belongs to the GOP.

The Republican response — indeed, the opposition-party response — to the State of the Union is usually the graveyard of upward ambitions. Not tonight. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman, is giving what is certainly the best such response in memory, and will — and should — spark serious talk about him as the Republican nominee next year. He has said flatly he’s not running. Maybe it would be wiser for a 41-year-old like Ryan to wait until 2016. But this speech reminds us that the deep bench of younger politicians — with Ryan and Marco Rubio and Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, among many others — really belongs to the GOP.

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