Bobby Jindal’s Not Fun Run

The Louisiana Governor has all the smarts in the world. So why can’t he keep his foot out of his mouth?

“I’m partial to governors, they’ve actually run something, as opposed to our current president,” says Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. “We can’t afford more on the job training.” Jindal says he’ll decide in the next few months whether he’ll run for president. But if he does, will anyone much notice or care?

Polls have him bunched in the back of the pack in the low single digits, he’s facing a $1.6 billion deficit in Louisiana, and his credibility took a whack over claims he made touring London last month about “no-go zones” controlled by Muslims that proved bogus.

As a reporter put it to Jindal at a Monday breakfast in Washington hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, when governors run for president they want to do for the country what they’ve done for their state. Jindal inherited a $900 million surplus in 2008 and to be fair, part of his state’s woes are the result of tumbling oil prices. But he also has what ‘s being dubbed a “Brownback problem,” an ideological zeal to cut taxes and squeeze spending that has even the Republicans running to replace him after two terms skewering Jindal for his fiscal stewardship.

We saw this play out last year when Kansas Governor Sam Brownback came close to losing his bid for reelection after his aggressive tax-cutting left the state with a huge hole in the budget and triggered a backlash even from his Republican allies.

Jindal is not the only Republican governor with presidential ambitions to have a Brownback problem. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker faces a $2.2 billion shortfall and growing pushback from the state’s education establishment for draconian cuts in higher education while tax breaks remain untouched. In New Jersey, Governor Christie is going to have a tough time spinning an economic miracle with Moody’s downgrading the state’s credit rating because of unfunded pension funds and sluggish job growth.

Listening to Jindal, one wonders how a guy who’s so smart – a Rhodes scholar who graduated from Brown University at age 20 and was elected governor at age 36, the youngest in the nation at the time – keeps stumbling into bad headlines.

He has a good story to tell on education and its rebuilding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but it’s overshadowed by his crusade against Common Core, a set of national standards that he originally supported. Common Core has become a third rail for Republicans. The party’s base hates it with the kind of passion that’s usually reserved for environmental regulations or immigration reform.

A reporter asked if Jindal thought Jeb Bush’s support for these federal standards would make him unelectable in the GOP primaries. Jindal wisely said that would be up to the voters, noting that there would be plenty of choices among candidates who oppose government intrusion. He framed it this way, do you support “an unelected elite, a group of bureaucrats in DC,” that are behind Common Core, or do you trust good, hardworking, smart parents who know what’s best for their children. “I trust parents,” he said.

An aide handed out copies of a 46-page glossy booklet titled, “K-12 Education Reform: A Roadmap.” In it, Jindal champions Republican talking points on school choice and charter schools, and calls for the Department of Education’s “budget slashed so it does not have the capacity to overreach even when it wants to.” Jindal said he welcomes the debate within the Republican Party on Common Core as an opening conversation about the role of government.

That debate used to be between the Republican and Democratic Parties, but with some two dozen Republicans of varying ideological stripes vying for the nomination, the fireworks are now within the GOP. Jeb Bush will likely be the sole defender of national standards, deflecting attacks from the others as they jockey among themselves to see who can go farther right.

Jindal is good at setting up straw men, declaring that “one of the biggest obstacles” to an “aspirational society” is “the Democratic Party standing in the school house door stopping children from getting a good education.” Yet when he was asked if there was one thing that President Obama has done in six years that he admires, he singled out the reforms carried out by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, which injected competition and choice and challenged teachers’ unions to change traditional seniority rules measuring teachers by “how long they’re breathing than how well they’re doing.” He only wishes the administration had gone further.

Jindal drowns every question in a torrent of words, defending his economic record with a slew of data points that include the fact that people have been moving into the state every year for the seven years he’s been governor. He has a brain that can incorporate all kinds of data, but he’s his own worst enemy as a politician because he can’t say anything in less than several minutes of what too often sounds like stream of consciousness.

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The one sound bite he mustered was in mock outrage to a question about a portrait that, in the words of one reporter, made him look white. “You mean I’m not white!” Jindal exclaimed. The portrait made the news when Jindal’s chief of staff tweeted that comments about the portrait were “race-baiting.” The portrait was done by a constituent, and Jindal dismissed the controversy as “nonsense” and evidence that “the left is obsessed with race.” He sounded genuinely exercised, declaring, “I’ve got a job to do – I run a state and I have three kids at home that I’m helping my wife raise.”

He’s also got his eye on the White House, and his possible entry into the race is a positive development for a party that sees the value of presenting a more diverse face to the voters. “If it helps you,” he said with an edge of irritation to the reporters around the table, “you’re more than welcome to put in every article a disclosure that I’m not white. It doesn’t bother me.”