Two of the three governors headed to Sen. John McCain's Arizona ranch for preliminary vice-presidential auditions this weekend are known political quantities. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was, of course, one of McCain's fiercest rivals on the Republican presidential primary circuit, while Florida Gov. Charlie Crist won a gubernatorial race that captured national attention in 2006.
Bobby Jindal, however, is much less well known -- though that's an impression the 36-year-old second-generation Indian American has been doing his best to address in the first five months of his new job as Louisiana governor.
An eight-minute spot on Jay Leno's couch and a National Press Club speech that was well received by conservatives have prompted some on the right to muse about the benefits of having his presence on the presidential ticket. Alternatively, others are now worrying whether their own Rhodes Scholar wunderkind might be needlessly damaged by running during an inauspicious year for GOP candidates.
But in an interesting development, the same quarters that have raised doubts about freshman Sen. Barack Obama's national security bona fides seem relatively unconcerned about Jindal's potential place on a ticket headed by a 71-year-old whose heath has been the subject of focus by the media. Similarly, given McCain's accusations regarding Obama's "inexperience," Jindal's short if well diversified resume has nevertheless failed to prove a stumbling block to speculation about the fast-tracking of his political future.
On the National Review's blog, The Corner, Yuval Levin wrote: "[Jindal has] more management and executive experience than Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or John McCain can point to. The Democrats could hardly accuse him of a thin resume if they're running Obama." While that analysis could conceivably be run in reverse, as well, there is actually something besides armchair political analysis to consider when looking at Jindal.
LSU Political Science Professor Jeffrey D. Sadow says the new governor's first five months can be split into the good, the bad, and the ugly. The "good," according to Sadow (who is also a registered Republican), includes budget cuts, new spending priorities and the passage of a package of ethics reforms for Louisiana politicians. If these new rules don't quite meet the "gold standard" Jindal promised on the campaign trail, Sadow said they merit a "silver."
State Democratic Party communications director Julie Vezinot said, however, that many of these reforms "were already in the works" before Jindal assumed office, while the rest "are not enforceable." The non-partisan Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana has echoed her second charge, and also alleged that a burden of proof change in the new ethics code will make "violations more difficult to prove." Nevertheless, the Center for Public Integrity was impressed enough to boost Louisiana's poor 2006 score on its state disclosure ranking.
Still, the conventional wisdom about Jindal being a reform-minded politician is not without opportunities for Democrats to challenge, should he become McCain's choice for the veep slot. The fact that Jindal's second-highest paid campaign staffer turned out to be an energy lobbyist might not be the best issue for a presidential candidate who is fighting a "perception problem" on the very same issue. Also, Jindal has agreed to pay a $2,500 fine in order to avoid an ethics hearing due to his failure to accurately report over $118,000 worth of in-kind contributions from the state GOP.
Other issues that could gain traction in any fall campaign against Jindal run the gamut from the personal to the wonky. Among the former, there is the wild and controversial claim that Jindal, a convert to Catholicism, witnessed an exorcism (though state Democrats ultimately decided against employing this "issue" last year). Meanwhile, on more substantive grounds, though McCain came out against a federal marriage amendment in 2004, Jindal voted yay on the matter as a House member in 2006. Jindal was also viewed as the most fervently anti-abortion candidate in the governor's race, telling the Times-Picayune, "I am 100 percent anti-abortion with no exceptions. I believe all life is precious." McCain and Jindal also hold opposing views on the creation of new embryonic stem cell lines for medical research. While these issues could help intensify support for the eventual Democratic nominee in moderate to liberal circles, they would also likely strengthen McCain's hand among the evangelicals for whom his candidacy has occasionally proved a tough sell.
Elsewhere in his evaluation of Jindal's record, LSU's Sadow identified "the bad" as the governor's awkward and late embrace of a tax cut proposal put forward by Republican State Senator Buddy Shaw. Senate Bill 87, still working its way through Louisiana's legislature, would roll back an add-on to the state's income tax code that is opposed by many conservatives and some Democrats.
"Clearly Jindal's handling of SB 87 has been about the only mistake he's made ... politically," Sadow said. "While Jindal never promised any individual income tax cuts during the campaign, he said he hoped to to do so and even eliminate the income tax. Yet his unexplained hesitancy to embrace even one that seemed quite 'affordable' mystified many, especially among his supporters."
The bill's author, perhaps once perturbed, now sings Jindal's praises, however. "I just think that he would be an excellent choice [for vice-president]," State Sen. Buddy Shaw told
The Huffington Post. "Given his energy output and intellectual capability ... I would see it as good for Louisiana and good for the country." Still, Shaw hopes Jindal's ascension doesn't occur too quickly, since his tax cut bill is still working its way through the conference committee. "I hope he's not on the campaign trail prior to signing that bill," Shaw admitted. "If he leaves, I'm not sure what the incoming individual would do."
Louisiana state Democrats are clearly trying to make an issue out of Jindal's potential abandonment of his duties for the national stage. In a press release issued rapidly after news broke Wednesday of Jindal's upcoming visit with McCain, Louisiana Democratic Party Chairman Chris Whittington said: "The Louisiana Democratic Party has said repeatedly throughout his campaign for governor that Jindal will cut and run the minute he gets a shot at a higher office. Now, not six months into his term, his eye is on the prize of the Vice Presidency with little focus on what is going on here in Louisiana."
The extent to which claims by Jindal's critics will stick ties into the problem Sadow labeled as "the ugly" part of the governor's tenure thus far. While Jindal is currently coasting on a sky-high 77 percent approval rating, Sadow said this is in spite of a sputtering public relations machine. "Where Jindal has come up shortest is in his administration's ability to communicate effectively its policy preferences as opposed to its much superior efforts in conveying a campaign agenda," Sadow said, suggesting that Jindal believes the local media will be against him no matter what.
"He has cooperated with the media only when it suits him," Sadow noted. "However, in part it also is just lack of skill. The SB 87 incident is the best example, where the administration totally misread the public and legislative mood. As a result, it had to grab onto the caboose rather than jump into the cab of that juggernaut train. For example, had he given a principled explanation -- and he had a good one -- to what appeared to be his opposition to the bill, he probably would have suffered little political damage. But either he couldn't or he thought non-communication about it would work. It didn't."