November 19, 2015
Bobby Jindal dropped out of the race on Tuesday. It wasn’t immediately expected, but it also wasn’t news. The descent from wildly popular governor and presidential prospect to wildly unpopular governor and presidential never-was is now complete.
- How did this happen, was there anything different about the Jindal implosion from other Class of 2016 governors to underperform?
- Does Jindal have a future? Is there any way we see him again in 2024 or thereabouts?
Remember, there are many more presidential prospects than nominees. Some (Mario Cuomo) never run. Others sabotage themselves (Ted Kennedy). Still others are completely forgotten a generation or two later (Frank Church). Yet another group isn’t ideologically in tune with the party (Rudy Giuliani).
Smart insiders get fooled. Richard Nixon, as savvy a politician as ever was, spent the 1970s looking forward to John Connally becoming a presidential candidate. Originally the Democratic Governor of Texas, the other guy in JFK’s limo who took a bullet, he became a Republican and Nixon’s Treasury secretary.
Absent Watergate, he was Nixon’s hand-picked successor for 1976. In 1980 he finally got to run, raising more early money than Ronald Reagan. He won one delegate, still (inflation adjusted) the most expensive delegate in history.
While Jindal was promising and well thought of, there was never a time where he was considered a front-runner if he would ever declare (Cuomo), someone everyone hoped wouldn’t compete with them (Kennedy), or annoited by someone really important (Connally).
He’s quite a bit more like Church. If anyone remembers him now, it is for the Senate Church Committee, which spent a couple years in the mid-70s looking in to CIA (and the virtually unknown to the public NSA) abuses. This eventually led to another look at the JFK assassination in 1978.
He also got elected four times to the Senate as a Democrat from Idaho. None were elected more than once before or at all after. It’s as big an accomplishment as it seems. Prior to running for president in 1976, he was a visible and generally well thought of senator.
Like Jindal, he got started very young, the fifth youngest senator in U.S. history at the time he first won election. Church had others (namely JFK and then RFK) ahead of him, so by the time he ran, though not old (50ish), he wasn’t as fresh as some of the alternatives.
As an independent-minded, relative outsider from the West with a reputation for integrity, Church was fairly well positioned for the post-Watergate climate. But it was a crowded field, he got a late start, and was starting to take some fire at home.
Much as the far less experienced Jimmy Carter got the jump on Church, Ted Cruz got ahead of Jindal. While Jindal is out prior to any voting and Church didn’t enter until after Iowa, in relative terms it’s about the same. Carter began planning a full two years ahead. Cruz started planning the day he won election to the Senate in 2012.
Though it seemed natural for Jindal to enter the 2016 race and he was re-elected in Louisiana back in 2011, he didn’t aggressively position himself for this round the way Cruz, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, or even Scott Walker did.
Unlike most of the governors who get nominated and/or elected, Jindal focused on governing Louisiana as long as he could, not campaigning full-time or even putting it first until the final year of his term. This is a trait he shares with Michael Dukakis who resisted setting his regular job aside for the 1988 campaign, even during the general election campaign.
While Dukakis managed to get nominated, it was against a weak field, and his concentration on Massachusetts hurt him against George H.W. Bush. At least he was still popular at home. Jindal is not. His approval rating is now in the 20s and dropping.
Why do Louisianans hate him? He’s the Republican governor of what is now a pretty red state. They’ve rebounded well from Katrina, he’s handled successive hurricanes well. The economy has expanded faster than the national average, is in the top 10 for job growth. Jindal has rigidly avoided tax increases and actually shrunk the size of state government.
But even in red states, people don’t hate government services, they just don’t like paying the bill. Jindal made actual cuts. You can get away with this if you’re facing a legit fiscal crisis or have excellent communication skills. He benefits from neither.
Entering office post-Katrina, replacing the semi-incompetent Kathleen Blanco, voters were willing to give Jindal lots of space to operate. When he ran in 2011, things were visibly improved over what he inherited. Jindal won an open primary majority against 16 opponents, winning 2/3 of the vote.
So he pressed forward. Ever since the days of Huey Long during the Great Depression, Louisianans have enjoyed the largesse provided by their leaders. Once in a while, the corruption and waste gets out of hand and they’ll give a Jindal some time at the wheel, but it’s not the default.
Smart, wonkish leaders without massive charisma a la Clinton can really get themselves in trouble when doing semi-controversial things. Even Clinton got run out of office after his first term in Arkansas, as voters rejected the uppity Ivy Leaguer.
He learned his lesson, and the eventual President Bubba was born. The same thing happened to Dukakis. Facing a huge, unanticipated deficit in his first term, he dealt with it better than most governors would have, avoiding massive tax increases and carefully cutting services.
By the time he was up for re-election in 1978, the Massachusetts economy was running well ahead of the national average. Dukakis got primaried by an old-school Democrat and lost badly. Results weren’t enough. Bay State voters resented his arrogance.
In 1982 he put his newly learned lessons to use and made a comeback, like Clinton becoming an eventual nominee. Both were beat up early and wound up better for it, getting better at connecting with voters and selling their actions in office.
Because of Katrina, Jindal got a pass at first, so he didn’t learn how to sound better early enough. Part of what kept him from getting prepared for the presidential race quickly enough was a last-ditch attempt to turn things around at home.
The unimproved Jindal wound up dismissively telling Christie he would give him a juice box in the last debate. That’s the guy they hate back home. It was also the final straw in his presidential run.
Where does Jindal go next? It’s very unlikely his political career is completely over. He’s only 44. In time his record in Louisiana will look really good. The most logical landing spot is in the cabinet of the next Republican administration.
If possible, becoming HHS secretary in January 2017, just in time to deal with replacing/overhauling Obamacare and dealing with Social Security/Medicare reform is a great fit. He was an assistant secretary at HHS during Bush 43’s first term.
Previously, he ran the Louisiana state hospital system. Jindal even spent a few years in Congress, so he has the perfect experience set to run arguably the most complicated agency in the government.
He’s imagineable as a VP nominee a decade or two from now as a millennial decides he or she needs an experienced backup. Jindal won’t get elected president in the future. He may try.
The list of candidates who exited early and then became president later are as follows:
It’s a short and invisible list. You don’t go from being bad at this to winning. Runners-up get nominated, also rans don’t. Joe Biden tried 20 years after his first attempt and didn’t get close. John Kasich is giving it a try 16 years later and doesn’t seem very viable today. They’re the Ghost of Jindal Future.
He might be the next Dick Cheney, Biden or Kasich, but don’t expect him to fade away or have anyone call him Mr. President.