On Feb. 8, a caller to The Rush Limbaugh Show asked the conservative host if there were any chance of McCain adding Newt Gingrich to the presidential ticket. Sighing audibly, Limbaugh regretfully described it as unlikely before rattling off the usual list of names of potential VPs. One stood out. "Bobby Jindal," the host declared, pausing for effect. "I did an interview with Bobby Jindal. He is the next Ronald Reagan, if he doesn't change. Bobby Jindal, the new governor of Louisiana, is the next Ronald Reagan."
To be sure, Jindal isn't the first Republican in the 2008 election season to be compared to the 40th president. Yet the way prominent figures on the right like Limbaugh paint Jindal suggests comparison with a more contemporary transformative figure, Barack Obama. The conservative movement is running on fumes -- short on both ideas and new talent, falling behind in increasingly important demographics, and suffering historic lows in popularity. Many in the movement see Jindal as the fresh face they need to compete for the hearts and minds of a new generation of voters -- a generation that is trending Democratic in overwhelming numbers.
But in cultivating this image, movement conservatives overlook the fact that Jindal uses his admittedly impressive resume to mask far-right positions on social issues, economic policy, and the role of government.
Piyush "Bobby" Jindal was born to Punjabi immigrants in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1971. Converting from Hinduism to Catholicism in his teens, he graduated magna cum laude from Brown with degrees in biology and public policy at age 20. Turning down offers from both Yale Law and Harvard Medical, Jindal accepted a Rhodes scholarship and moved to Oxford, earning a master's degree in political science.
Initially at least, Jindal seemed headed for a lucrative career in the private sector. He worked for two years at McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm, but accepted a position as secretary of Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals under Republican governor Murphy J. Foster Jr. in 1996. During his tenure, Jindal turned a $400 million deficit into a budget surplus by cutting per-beneficiary Medicaid spending and reducing the work force by 1000 employees, ultimately attracting the attention of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicine, which appointed him executive director in 1998. The following year Jindal was appointed president of the University of Louisiana system by the Board of Trustees, the youngest person ever to hold that position. In 2001, President Bush nominated Jindal to be assistant secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services. He was confirmed unanimously and became Secretary Tommy Thompson's chief policy adviser.
Jindal resigned from HHS to run for governor of Louisiana in 2003. After winning the primary with a third of the vote, he went on to lose the general to Democrat Kathleen Blanco, 52-48. The loss raised Jindal's profile in the state, however, and he was able to easily win the congressional seat vacated by newly elected Sen. David Vitter in 2004.
The key political event for Jindal, however, was Hurricane Katrina.
Jindal saw Katrina as a validation of the conservative trope that government bureaucracy itself was ineffective. Describing his experience in the Limbaugh interview, Jindal recounted the following incident:
At one point, volunteers were rushing in boats, to come and pick up people out of the water. Some bureaucrat decided that they couldn't go in the water -- turned away even sheriff 's deputies because he said they didn't have the right paperwork. He said if you don't bring proof of insurance and registration, you can't go in the water to rescue. That is the kind of inane absurdity of the bureaucracy.
Conservative criticisms of government bureaucracy are nothing new. But Jindal believes Katrina awakened in his constituents a desire to root out the notorious corruption of the Bayou State which he believes was responsible for its own disastrous response to the hurricane. Jindal, like many politicians, says that he was elected with a popular mandate to wage war on corruption and incompetence, but, more unusually, he ties this into the same "post-partisan" rhetorical style employed by Barack Obama. Describing his gubernatorial campaign to Limbaugh, Jindal made the following observation:
We won in the primary outright. Obviously, this was a mandate from the people of Louisiana. They want change, and there's no way to explain away the results on election night. In terms of my call to an end to partisanship, what I mean by that is let's not be for something just because one party's label's on it. Let's not be against something just because the other party's label's on it. That does not mean diluting our principles.
Some conservatives see Jindal's approach as a promising new direction for the party. Take, for example, the enthusiastic support it has received from Newt Gingrich. Gingrich's latest book isn't about conservative failure -- unlike Richard Viguerie's scathing Conservatives Betrayed -- but is instead focused on "American solutions" and "Real Change." And Gingrich, more than any other conservative leader, has promoted the idea of Bobby Jindal as the "change" conservative. On his Web site he wrote, "Bobby Jindal was a tireless advocate for change before 'change' became every candidate's favorite catchphrase." And, "He's one to watch for all of us who believe in the endless possibilities of America when government is accountable, entrepreneurship is rewarded, creativity is encouraged and real achievement matters."
The breadth and intensity of Jindal's support, however, goes well beyond the empty slogans of Gingrich and the breathless prophecies of Limbaugh. In a February National Review Online poll about VP picks, Jindal won overwhelmingly, with most readers citing his command of policy details and his intelligence. A recent Human Events Online article even went so far as to title an article, "Bobby Jindal -- Change You Can Believe in."
On social issues, Jindal has a record only James Dobson could love. He strongly and openly opposes abortion (without exception, even in cases of rape and incest), supports teaching intelligent design in public schools, has proposed bans on both stem-cell research and flag burning, and voted for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman. McCain, on the other hand, has flip-flopped on all these issues, with the exception of flag burning.
On McCain's biggest problem with the conservative base, immigration, Jindal would be an effective counterbalance: He has consistently been an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration, and voted in favor of building a border fence. His economic record is a bit less dogmatic. He tends to vote against free trade agreements like CAFTA but consistently sides with energy interests over environmentalists. For example, he favored a motion to lift the moratorium on offshore gas drilling, one of many votes that led the League of Conservation Voters to give him a rating of just 7 percent.
If John McCain were looking for a right-wing conservative running mate, he could do worse than Jindal. But since sewing up the nomination, McCain has seen a skeptical conservative base line up behind him. Even Rick Santorum, who had repeatedly proclaimed McCain unacceptable, penned an op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer last month urging conservatives to support McCain despite the reservations they might feel about him. The next challenge for McCain will be shoring up the support of independent centrists who may well be wary of Jindal's social conservative record.
Still, Jindal's cultivated reputation as a reformer could serve to distract independents from his social conservatism. McCain could try to employ Jindal to contradictory ends, shoring up his support on the right and the middle of the electorate by depicting Jindal as both the popular young reformer and the unapologetic right-wing social conservative. Going up against the Democrats' change candidate this fall will require McCain to campaign on change, too, while recognizing that the conservative base doesn't want change at all. This is a circle that Jindal, more than anyone else in his party, may help McCain to square.
These thoughts will likely be going through McCain's mind this Memorial Day weekend, when he will receive Jindal and Florida governor Charlie Crist at his Sedona ranch. (Mitt Romney will also be present, but it isn't clear what electoral value he would add to the ticket.) Crist gives McCain an advantage in Florida, which is a state he can't afford to lose. But neither can McCain afford to give short shrift to other swing states where his personal biography might not be enough to compete with an economic downturn, an unpopular war, and fatigue with the incumbent party. McCain knows he can't let himself be too closely associated with President Bush, and the only way to distinguish himself in the mind of the electorate is to wrestle away Obama's claim to the change mantle. That just might be enough to convince him to give Jindal the nod.