05.21.10

How Oil Saved Bobby Jindal

As BP drags its feet in responding to the Deepwater disaster, Louisiana's Bobby Jindal has given the suits the hell they deserve. Reihan Salam on the governor-as-action hero.

As if the good people of Louisiana haven't had to deal with enough in the years since Katrina, the extraordinary incompetence and arrogance of British Petroleum is endangering the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands who harvest food from the Gulf, and who work in the still-recovering tourism industry. In New Orleans, residents are debating the nature of the powerful odor wafting over the city: does it smell like gasoline or like sewage? All that is clear is that even if we leave aside the devastation of the delicate ecology of the Gulf, the oil spill is having a visceral, immediate impact on quality of life in the city.

Jindal is filling a psychological need: if nothing else, many Louisianans feel helpless in response to the slow-motion disaster.

In another era, perhaps BP executives would be tarred and feathered with their own oil, and paraded through the streets of New Orleans in an effort to slake the thirst for revenge that still builds as we learn more about the lies and evasions of what is fast becoming the world's most despised multinational enterprise. But short of that, Louisiana has been able to look to Governor Bobby Jindal to give BP the tongue-lashing it badly deserves. In a series of impassioned public statements, Jindal has all but declared the fight against the oil spill as the moral equivalent of war. "We're going to do what it takes to protect our way of life," he's said, the clear implication being that legal niceties and ideology won't stop him from doing what he deems necessary.

Elected as the first Organization Kid governor, Jindal is a talented young wonk who first ran for governor in 2003 after a meteoric rise in state and national politics, After losing that election and winning election to Congress almost immediately afterwards, Jindal was careful not to become a creature of Washington. During Katrina, he traveled throughout the Gulf region in an effort to help guide the federal response to the disaster, bonding with local law enforcement officials and serving as a kind of governor-in-waiting as his erstwhile opponent, the hapless then-governor Kathleen Blanco, failed to project the competence that voters expected of her. Jindal's extraordinary energy in those days helped cement an impression of him as something more than a whiz-kid wonk. Rather, he come across as a hard-charging, decisive leader capable of getting results.

But since his election in 2007, Jindal has inevitably run into rocky shoals, thanks in no small part to a national economy badly battered by the downturn and the jobless recovery and the particular problems facing a notoriously corrupt, poverty-stricken state. Touted as a future presidential candidate, Jindal's response to President Obama's first State of the Union in February of last year was subject to withering critiques from the left and the right, with the blow softened only by an enthusiastic defense from talk-radio icon Rush Limbaugh. The speech was a simple paean to American exceptionalism and the virtues of economic laissez-faire, a fairly unexceptional and arguably overfamiliar litany of conservative cliches. The irony is that Jindal's expertise on the nitty-gritty details of Medicare reform and a range of other complex domestic issues meant that he was one of very few Republican leaders capable of making an incisive yet accessible critique of President Obama's domestic agenda. Yet instead of playing to his strengths, he channeled a good ol' boy tone that came across as cloying and unpersuasive. For whatever reason, it is crisis that brings out the best in Jindal, as we've seen in recent weeks.

With his data-rich calls for the creation of sand booms and other coastal defense measures, and his very visible efforts to pressure the federal government to take more aggressive action, Jindal has come to embody the response to the oil spill. There's something decidedly unconservative about Jindal's hands-on approach. Like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who made a point of taking a leading role in responding to hurricanes and other natural disasters during his tenure, Jindal is playing the role of governor-as-action-hero. Whether or not this will prove more effective than Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour's more hands-off approach is unclear. What is clear is that Jindal is filling a psychological need: if nothing else, many Louisianans feel helpless in response to the slow-motion disaster, and the governor is giving voice to their anger and their desire to take action—any action—in defense of their way of life. Many experts take a more fatalistic approach to Jindal's call for creating a series of barrier islands, suggesting that it will most likely fail to prevent severe damage to coastal marshes. Somehow, how, it seems perverse to expect the people of southern Louisiana to grin and bear the oil spill. And so Jindal's mix of anger and overoptimism fits the moment.

Long after national attention dies down, the oil spill will continue to have repercussions for those who live along the Gulf. Jindal is up for reelection in 2011, and it remains to be seen whether his efforts will earn him a second term. Given his extraordinary abilities and ambition, many wonder if he will join a Republican presidential ticket in 2012, and perhaps a reputation as hero of the Gulf will burnish his credentials. The true test will be whether Jindal's manic frenzy actually yields results, and early indications aren't promising. Maybe the state will be somewhat better off than it would've been in the absence of Jindal's efforts. The tragic thing is that BP has done such a spectacularly bad job of meeting its responsibilities that all of the coastal defense efforts in the world seem like a kind of theater—a way to keep the kids at home happy and satisfied that their leaders feel their pain, but little more than that. No one doubts Bobby Jindal's sincerity. He really is an nerdy, earnest young dad who wants to do the best job he can for Louisiana. But in this disturbing new era, even the most powerful politician can't prevent dangerously clueless oil executives from bringing an entire region to the brink of environmental disaster.

Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at e21 and a fellow at the New America Foundation.