Budding Republican superstar Jindal is happy where he is right now
BATON ROUGE, La. — He is the future of the Republican Party, some say, and has risen so high for the age of 36 that his name is tossed about as a potential vice presidential pick.
But Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal says he wants to stay in his job while expecting to lose popularity as he pushes forward his ambitious twoterm plan to remake his state in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“I told the voters of Louisiana this is a historic, one-time opportunity to change our state, and I want to be a part of that,” he said during an hourlong helicopter ride to Shreveport April 23 for an event.
“I’m exactly where I need to be,” said Mr. Jindal, who is the youngest governor in the U.S., and the son of Indian immigrants.
When he talks about using his political capital and how he is “not a big believer in polls,” Mr. Jindal can sound a lot like President Bush.
But while the governor maintains a good relationship with Mr. Bush and members of his administration, he was not afraid to criticize the president’s attempt to reform immigration, as well as Mr. Bush’s opposition last fall to increased spending for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).
Mr. Jindal said the Republican Party’s anti-spending stance on SCHIP was a “great example” of how “the Republican Party stopped being the party of ideas.”
It was the president himself, however, who laid down a clear marker in the SCHIP debate, as he tried to reclaim the mantle of fiscal conservatism.
Mr. Jindal — who at 25 was Louisiana’s secretary of health and hospitals and at 30 was nominated by Mr. Bush to be an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services — said the party should have offered an alternative vision for health care instead of simply being against expansive programs offered by Democrats.
“The Democrats had their ideas, but the Republicans said, ‘No, we don’t want to spend that much money. We don’t want to cover as many children.’ As opposed to saying, ‘Hey look, we think the delivery system is wrong. We agree that children should be covered, but we want to do it through private health plan. We want to help poor families afford private care. We don’t want bureaucracies making health care decisions,’ “ Mr. Jindal said.
“Instead, they had exactly the wrong debate and the wrong discussion,” he said.
On immigration, Mr. Jindal said the White House should have restored public trust in the government’s promises to secure the border by taking concrete steps to do so in the president’s first term.
“The fundamental mistake they made was misjudging the very real desire to have steps toward enforcement,” Mr. Jindal said. “The tactical mistake was starting all of it at once.”
In Louisiana, Mr. Jindal is a man on the move who already has pushed through a large ethics reform package in a state long known for its political corruption, and tax cuts for businesses in his first three months in office.
“He’s changing the culture of Baton Rouge,” the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona said during a speech in the state capital on April 25.
And Mr. Jindal, who in between health-policy stints was a 28-yearold president of Louisiana’s university system, is positioned to be a conservative standard-bearer for years on health care and education, two of the most pressing issues, where leadership from the right has been lacking.
“He is the future,” said Republican political operative Ken Mehlman, former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
“He’s an intellectual politician, which is a rare things these days,” said Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, who broke his own barriers in Virginia in 1989 by becoming the nation’s first black man elected governor.
“The test,” Mr. Wilder said, “will be whether he can translate that into pragmatism.”
Mr. Jindal has shown from a young age how pragmatic he can be. As a 4year-old, he watched “The Brady Bunch” and decided that Bobby might be a better fit than Piyush — his birth name — for Louisiana, where he was born and raised.
Louisianans seem to like him no matter what he calls himself.
A recent poll showed the governor with a 70 percent approval rating, and even Democratic leaders in the state Legislature speak highly of him.
“After the hurricane, I think people were looking for a fresh new approach, and he represented that,” said state Senate President Joel T. Chaisson, a Democrat from St. Charles Parish in southeastern Louisiana.
“It’s got people in this state excited, Republicans and Democrats. I haven’t seen this much optimism in a long time. I feel good about it,” said Mr. Chaisson, though he conceded his party does not agree with Mr. Jindal on how to reform health care and education.
During his trip two weeks ago to Shreveport to announce more funding for a crime lab, Mr. Jindal showed all the energy and confidence — mixed with a dose of modesty — expected from someone his age who has accomplished so much.
The past few weeks have been busy for the father of three. Last month, he spent two days hosting and appearing with Mr. Bush at events in New Orleans for a North American leaders summit.
After his trip to Shreveport, Mr. Jindal had some legislative business at the state Capitol then headed back to New Orleans for dinner with Mr. McCain. He also took Mr. McCain on a tour of a neighborhood in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward that was ravaged by Katrina.
Mr. Jindal rode to the 9th Ward with Mr. McCain on the candidate’s “Straight Talk Express” campaign bus, sitting next to the senator in an easy chair and talking to reporters about the Bush administration’s failure to reduce red tape for New Orleans residents trying to return.
Mr. Jindal kept up his high-profile last week. He appeared on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on April 28, and on May 2 he spoke at the National Press Club in Washington.
Mr. McCain refused, when asked in New Orleans, to say whether he will ask Mr. Jindal to be his running mate.
But Mr. Jindal told The Times that he does not want to be asked, because he has so much he wants to do in Louisiana.
Yet, while he is riding high now, Mr. Jindal knows his ambitious plans for reform will bring criticism down the road.
“I can guarantee that by using [political capital], our numbers will come down,” Mr. Jindal said. “I don’t care if this is the last political office I hold, as long as I do what’s right for my state. I mean that sincerely.”
Mr. Jindal, a convert to Roman Catholicism from his parents’ Hinduism, said his faith anchors him against the rocky days he foresees.
“It’s important to have an eternal perspective,” he said.
The one to watch: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal