Jindal’s Republican Presidential Candidacy Puzzles Many

The Louisiana governor is running as the sort of populist he denounced two years ago.

Republican governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana speaks in New Orleans, June 27, 2011
Republican governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana speaks in New Orleans, June 27, 2011 (Marine Forces Reserve)

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal said on Wednesday he would run for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, puzzling many who don’t see how he could distinguish himself.

Alan Greenblatt argues at Politico that Jindal has become the kind of Republican he criticized just two years ago: prone to hysterical criticism of Democrats and the left and unserious about the foreign policy and social challenges America faces.

In 2013, a year after they had lost their second presidential election in a row, Jindal called on Republicans to “stop being the stupid party.”

A former Rhodes scholar with serious policy chops, he appeared perfectly positioned to elevate the discussion of ideas. Instead, Jindal has chosen to run in 2016 as the stupid party’s standard-bearer.

During a visit to Europe early this year, Jindal alleged there were “no-go zones” on the continent where the imposition of Islamic law made non-Muslims unwelcome — playing into some rightwingers’ totally unfounded fears of sharia law in the United States.

Just last week, Jindal claimed that corporations had entered into an “unnatural alliance with the radical left” to block religious freedom bills at the state level.

Such statements appeal to a segment of Republican primary voters whose universe does not extend beyond Fox News and talk radio. But they directly contradict the warnings Jindal uttered two years ago against cheap-shot populism.

It’s not as though Jindal doesn’t have substance to talk about. In Louisiana, he pushed through ambitious education and Medicaid reforms that could be duplicated at the national level. If he put his reformist credentials together with his staunch social conservatism — Jindal opposes abortion, gun control, marriage equality and liberal immigration laws — he could be a real contender.

As it is, Jindal seems to be competing for the angry and largely-white vote which is not going to put Republicans back in the White House. It probably won’t even get him the nomination.

Greenblatt cites Melissa Clouthier, a conservative blogger from Texas, who sees little room for Jindal in what is already a pretty crowded primary field. “There are governors with his level of success,” she says, like Jeb Bush and Rick Perry, and “there are ideologues who are more pure,” such as Ted Cruz.

FiveThirtyEight‘s Harry Enten argues that Jindal would have stood a better chance four years ago.

In 2012, Jindal would have mainly been competing for the affections of social conservative voters with Michele Bachmann, Perry and Rick Santorum. Only the latter two had ever won statewide office, and they both had their own problems. Now, Jindal has to go up against five other candidates for the social conservative vote, including four who have won statewide office before.

It’s not just that Jindal’s opponents are better this time around, according to Enten. The Louisianan is weaker.

In 2011, Jindal was reelected governor with 66 percent support. Now, he’s trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton in his own state in a hypothetical 2016 matchup.

In 2010, 45 percent of Republicans nationally viewed Jindal favorably. In three recent polls, he has averaged 30 percent favorability. Jindal hardly registers in the early primary state polls.

So why is he running at all? Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein believes the most likely explanation is that “Jindal has correctly assessed that the Republican frontrunners are weak enough that a long shot could win the nomination.”

If it’s true that almost any candidate can have a public-opinion surge, Jindal is better positioned than most of his rivals to take advantage of one. He has no policy conflicts with any of the important groups in the party. There are no scandal-producing stories to scare off those who care most about winning in November 2016. His basic political reputation remains fairly solid.

But even Bernstein admits Jindal lacks one important thing — supporters.

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