Bobby Jindal (AP).
So anyway, with 2012 out of the way we can start obsessing over the 2016 primaries, which promise to be absolutely fascinating, particularly on the Republican side. More on this in weeks to come but right now let's just note the first potential GOP contender to begin staking out a position: Louisiana's governor, Bobby Jindal.
Jindal has long been talked of as a future nominee. He's bright (a degree in political science from Oxford) and accomplished, being midway through a second term as governor at the age of 41. He's been an effective and popular governor of Louisiana, overseeing a radical post-Katrina education programme (much of the New Orleans school system literally got swept away in the floods) which has won admiration around the world, raising standards for poor, African-American kids. He's got conservative cred because of his refusal to take (at least some of) the Obama stimulus, and his hardline beliefs on abortion (he's a Catholic). And of course he has the unusual distinction of being a Republican politician who isn't white.
His national prospects received a setback in 2009 when he was chosen to give the party's response to Obama's first State of the Union and did a dreadful job, communicating with all the vibrancy of a cardboard box and employing an anecdote of rather dubious truth value.
Jindal's SOTU response was bad partly because he seemed to be parroting party talking points, and poorly. But he's now talking with the urgency of a man who has discovered his political mission. In an interview on Monday he said:
“We’ve got to make sure that we are not the party of big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes, big anything...We cannot be, we must not be, the party that simply protects the rich so they get to keep their toys...It is no secret we had a number of Republicans damage our brand this year with offensive, bizarre comments — enough of that,” Jindal said. “It’s not going to be the last time anyone says something stupid within our party, but it can’t be tolerated...We’ve also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism. We need to stop being simplistic, we need to trust the intelligence of the American people and we need to stop insulting the intelligence of the voters.”
No senior Republican politician - not even Chris Christie - has dared be as blunt about the party's malaise. But that wasn't the end of it. Yesterday, Jindal commented on Mitt Romney's unseemly explanation of his defeat. Romney, talking to his donors on a conference call, said Obama won because he handed out "gifts" to minorities and young voters. Other senior Republicans, like Marco Rubio, cautiously distanced themselves from Romney's remarks. But Jindal really hammered him:
“I think that’s absolutely wrong,” Jindal said later Wednesday at a news conference in Las Vegas at a meeting of the Republican Governors Association. “We have got to stop dividing the American voters. We need to go after 100 percent of the votes, not 53 percent..."
Then, in a CNN interview he reiterated his point:
"This is completely unhelpful," Jindal told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on "The Situation Room." "This is not where the Republican Party needs to go. If you want voters to like you, the first thing you've got to do is like them first."
That last sentence - if you want voters to like you, the first thing you've got to do is like them first - is, I think, simple but brilliant. It nails the problem with Romney's remarks, which was one of tone and tenor as much as substance. It expresses, in a few words, a profound political truth - a lesson that the modern Tory Party had to learn the hard way after 13 years out of power, and one that successful politicians like Reagan, Blair and Clinton, understand instinctively. Jindal is doing his party a service by spelling it out, but it can't be faked - the last two Republican candidates tried and failed. For all the ardent talk about loving America, right now many Republicans seem to be baffled and repelled by many Americans. That's got to change if they want to win again.