A War on Two Fronts: for national success, Jindal needs to protect his flank

By Lauren McGaughy and Bruce Alpert

If this year’s presidential campaign taught Americans anything, it’s that a strong start does not always denote a strong finish. “Time off” for those with national aspirations also does not exist, with candidates for 2016 already emerging.

Arguably, one of the first horses out of the gate is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who, after Nov. 6, came out more strongly than any other possible 2016 Republican nominee in advocating for a major shift in party messaging, whether it’s touting his education overhaul at the Brookings Institution, shifting his stance on oral contraception or pushing a more moderate view of immigration policy than some of his GOP counterparts.

While the Republican loss may have dashed any hopes of a Jindal cabinet position — although he has said he was not interested in a cabinet position — in a Mitt Romney- Paul Ryan administration, Jindal’s pivot away from the GOP candidate and highly-calculated thrust into the national conversation has at least one outlet calling him “the truth teller.”

But as his national stature rises, Jindal must also contend with increasing public policy problems and political dissatisfaction at home. This includes a looming debt crisis and a Legislature increasingly upset over last-minute policies pushed through the 2012 legislative session.obamalandrieujindal

With three years for these problems to fester, many analysts and officials say that perhaps the best strategy for Jindal to follow is to get back home and shore up his defenses.

“I would rather him focus the next three years getting Louisiana back on track,” State Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie said. “I think that would do his national image a greater justice. There’s no better way to prove what you can do on the national level than doing it on the local level.”

It will be this challenge — framing his national persona while quashing increasing dissatisfaction with his policies at home — that will become his biggest challenge in the next four years.

The governor, who got his start in state politics early when he was appointed as head of hospitals at the age of 24, continues to deny his national ambitions.

In a recent telephone interview with NOLA.com, Jindal said, “Anybody that’s even talking about or thinking about running for president in 2016 should have their heads examined.”

Yet just recently, Jindal was among five Republican governors who approached billionaire casino magnate and top GOP financier Sheldon Adelson about possible financial backing — an unlikely move unless he was contemplating a national campaign.

Jindal’s possible candidacy comes as the GOP launches a soul-searching effort to figure out why the Romney-Ryan ticket was handily defeated by a Democratic incumbent amid a halting economic recovery.

A critical question for Republicans is how to win a bigger share of Hispanic, women and minority voters. Some believe Jindal, who was born to immigrant parents and went on to become a Rhodes Scholar before becoming governor of a highly conservative state, could provide a winning vision.

Jindal said the challenge facing the GOP is more than one of just style.

“This has to be more than just marketing or PR; this is not simply the same policies that got us to where we are today,” Jindal told NOLA.com.

At the same time, many of Jindal’s proposals will not exactly shock the party faithful. One that he cited specifically, school vouchers, has been a longtime conservative goal. Another, eliminating loopholes in the tax code as a means of lowering overall rates, has been supported by various groups over the years and was a prominent, if non-specific, part of the budget proposed by Ryan last year.

Notably, the governor is likely to still be able to point to accomplishments in both those areas if he does make a run for the White House as the legal battle over vouchers continues and the administration plans to attempt to overhaul the state’s tax code during the next legislative session.

Pressed about the difference between changes in rhetoric vs. changes in policy, Jindal Communications Director Kyle Plotkin suggested two additional areas where there may be some distance between the governor and mainstream conservatism: immigration and energy policy.

Jindal has publicly stated that the United States should increase legal immigration, a position that could put him at odds with some factions within the GOP. In addition, he has argued that energy issues cannot be solved by increased drilling alone.

Taking cues from Bill Clinton

While some think Jindal could take cues from George W. Bush’s successful shift from governor of Texas to president, analysts said he might want to follow the lead of another ex-governor — Bill Clinton.

Clinton’s 1992 move from the Arkansas state house to the White House came as he successfully transformed his Democratic Party from the liberal policies of the doomed 1988 nominee Michael Dukakis to one designed to appeal more to moderate voters.

The trick for Republicans, according to former Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-Chackbay, is to become “less threatening” to minorities, women and young voters while retaining many of the party’s conservative elements important to the party base.

Clinton’s strategy — coming after the Democratic Party lost three successive presidential races — was to use his vice chair position on the Democratic Leadership Council in an attempt to reposition his party with more centrist polices.

“I think the Republicans, whether it’s Bobby Jindal or someone else, need to expand the Republican base, much as Clinton expanded the Democratic base,” said former Sen. John Breaux, D-La., who served in the DLC leadership with Clinton.

Jindal, with his strong conservative credentials, could also pull his party away from the right, where Romney, with his moderate background as governor of Massachusetts, was forced to take it.

“The (conservative) base will trust Jindal more because he has governed as a conservative in Louisiana,” said Tauzin, who helped advise both the George W. Bush and Rick Perry presidential campaigns.

That said, the path to the nomination isn’t going to be easy. In the seemingly never-ending 2012 GOP presidential race, there was a new front-runner every few weeks.

And with about three years left until the campaigns ratchet up for election season, Jindal has ample time to further build — or lose — his lead in the national narrative.

During that time, the Baton Rouge native will face multiple challenges at home, including a less amenable electorate and Legislature.

A Southern Media and Opinion Research poll released in October showed Jindal’s approval rating has plummeted since fall 2011, from 64 to 51 percent. The issues that engendered the most anger among those polled were those also causing grief among lawmakers — recent deep budget cuts.

Steep budget cuts, especially in the hospital and prison systems, and an education overhaul rammed through the Legislature, worried those polled as well as lawmakers.

And despite facing little successful opposition from legislators during his first years in office, all indications point toward a heated 2013 Legislative session, slated to begin in early April.

Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Jindal needs to worry how this local disaffection could affect his national image.

“Everything you do at home is seen in the context of your presidential candidacy,” Sabato said. “The usual criticism is amplified because the home folks feel neglected, and the national media picks up the noise and broadcasts it across the nation.”

The 2013 session will deal almost exclusively with fiscal policy. During the session, the two most pressing issues addressed will be the debt and tax reform.

Challenging the budgeting process

“We feel that this budget, the budget practices of the last several years, have run afoul of the Constitution. And not only that, it’s just bad fiscal policy,” said Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge.

Talbot and 18 other members of the Louisiana House sent a letter to Attorney General Buddy Caldwell on Nov. 19, questioning the constitutionality of last year’s budget.

The issue will most likely go all the way to the state’s Supreme Court. The group who issues the complaint, who call themselves the Louisiana Budget Reform Campaign, are not the only legislators angry with the state’s debt.

Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, said she and other Democrats will also be outspoken on this issue, which she repeatedly called “the Gov. Jindal-created deficit.” She also said she’s been shocked by recent statements by Jindal that he’s a “man of the people” after tax cuts and exemptions have fueled the state’s current fiscal crisis.

Jindal’s top legislative agenda item next year, sweeping state tax reform, could also meet with opposition. But as details are scarce on actual policy, it’s hard to predict how the legislature will react.

But there are still large swaths of the legislature in support of Jindal. While fiscal-hawk conservatives and Democrats have made clear their displeasure, other Republicans say the problem is less with policy and more with procedure.

“They are unhappy with the methodology under which they do the budgeting process,” said state Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie. “It’s really a battle of principle. I don’t think they’re mad at Jindal. They think [the administration’s] doing it in an improper way,”

Nonetheless, procedural problems could still plague Jindal next session, especially after an aspect of his much touted education overhaul was ruled unconstitutional earlier this month by a district judge. The Jindal administration has indicated it will appeal the ruling.

“I think the majority of the body going into this [legislative] session … is going to be a lot different,” said Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro, the youngest member at 28. “The one big thing is we’re not coming off of an election and we’re coming off a lack of trust, a lack of transparency. That’s become the white elephant in the room.”

Rep. John Bel Edwards echoed this sentiment, adding, “the problem is the vast majority of people in the Legislature believe that he is principally motivated by his own self ambition. That colors the prism through which we see all of his initiatives.”

He added many in Jindal’s own party “have grown weary of his extremism, grown wearing of the dictatorial manner in which he runs the governor’s office.”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, once a front-runner among Republicans, also came under fire at home for being away from home during his ill-fated presidential run this season, but has now more or less returned to his previous popularity among Texas voters.

Perry also shared more power with other state elected officials, thus relieving him of some of the burden if policies fail.

“Neither he nor Bush ran while confronted by big problems of wide concern, like your budget shortfall,” said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin.

Breaux added both Clinton and Bush were popular at home before deciding to run for president. Although Jindal remains a formidable political force in Louisiana, any increasing challenges to his power could have national consequences.