Among the GOP’s presidential hopefuls for 2016, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal scores near the bottom, with just 3 percent support from New Hampshire voters in a CNN poll. But his poor showing is not for lack of trying, and the red meat he now tosses to the base is at least of a novel variety. On Tuesday, for example, he accused the Obama administration of being “science deniers,” a charge more commonly leveled at, rather than by, conservatives like Jindal.
As vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Jindal’s been traveling to key states, including Iowa and New Hampshire. He’s also been systematically unveiling policy proposals, like the shiny 47-page pamphlet on “Making America an Energy Superpower,” which graced every seat at a Tuesday breakfast in Washington where Jindal took questions from reporters.
A boy genius who graduated from Brown University at age 20 and turned down offers from Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School to pursue political science at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, the 43-year-old Jindal still has plenty of time to peak in his storied career. He says he’ll decide after November whether to run for president, and with that in mind, his facile mind and his agility with words were tested at the breakfast organized by The Christian Monitor.
Jindal called the Obama administration “science deniers” in his opening remarks. “Let the scientists debate and figure that out,” Jindal said when challenged to say where he stands on climate change, preferring to turn the question back on the administration for, in his view, denying science by refusing to green-light the Keystone Pipeline.
Asked if he personally believes the climate is changing, and Earth is warming, and human activity is at least partially responsible, Jindal resorted to the verbal gymnastics that characterized his responses to most questions. “The climate is always changing, it’s not controversial to say that,” he said. But he again wanted to “let the scientists decide” what’s causing those changes, adding that he hopes human activity is “not contributing” an increase in temperatures. In any event, he’s for “leaving it to the scientists.”
On the other hand, he agrees with conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer that “one doesn’t have to be a believer or a denier to say we should control emissions.” But he opposes the U.S. taking unilateral action and would withdraw from the United Nations Kyoto Protocol governing climate change. He points out that the U.S. exports 10 percent of the country’s coal production, which means that coal is getting burned somewhere.
“Simply exporting coal to other countries doesn’t do anything,” he said, concluding with his new favorite mantra: “Let the scientists debate and figure that out.”
The scientists are going to be plenty busy if there’s a Jindal administration. In the meantime, asked if he personally believes the theory of evolution explains the presence of life, he ducked, saying local schools should make the decision about what’s taught in their classrooms.
“As a father, I want my kids to be taught about evolution,” he said, while insisting that local schools should decide what kind of science or biology should be taught. In an exchange immediately after the breakfast, Jindal told The Daily Beast that his opposition to Common Core education standards is based on the same kind of thinking, that the federal government should not be imposing standards from Washington. Once an avid promoter of the Common Core, he has said it’s been “hijacked” by the Obama administration.
Whether Jindal is sincerely searching for alternative policies, or he’s engaging in the double talk common in politics, is hard to say. Maybe he’s doing both. As one of the GOP’s younger activists, he pioneered an idea that is gaining currency on the campaign trail among Republicans: advocating for the sale of over-the-counter birth control. “I do see this as becoming more common,” he said, noting that Republican candidates in tight races for the senate in Colorado and North Carolina have embraced the position. “The fact that the left reacted so loudly” told him it was working, Jindal said.
With control of the Senate up for grabs in November, this newfound support among Republicans for contraceptive access could blunt Democratic allegations that the GOP is in a “war on women.” Democrats counter that if contraceptives are sold over the counter, insurance companies would no longer have to cover the cost, which for some amounts to $600 a year for birth control pills. Jindal said all he’s doing is following the recommendations of doctors and medical associations, which say this is a safe product that can be offered over the counter without a prescription.
“It doesn’t stop a woman from getting a prescription from the doctor and insurance covering it,” he said. “This is giving an additional option, not taking it away.” He predicted that insurance companies would respond to market forces and the pressure from consumers to continue their coverage. He said it would be “cheaper” for insurance companies to cover contraceptives bought over the counter than having to pay for doctor visits and births.
A convert from Hinduism to Christianity, Jindal is making the issue of religious freedom a centerpiece of his appeal to the Republican primary electorate. He lauded the Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court and said he and other social conservatives were “shocked” at the recent National Prayer Breakfast “to hear [Obama] talk about what’s happening overseas while ignoring what’s happening here at home.”
Jindal will have to elbow others aside in the crowded GOP space for those who argue religion has been sidelined, a belief that’s become almost a given in the current GOP. A better use of his political talents might be in the verbal gymnastics he’s so good at, and in squaring the circle of a Republican Party seeking a future when it is so divided on how it sees the present.