Bobby Jindal talks too fast. That, both admirers and detractors agree, is the most noticeable flaw in the impressive presentation he offers as the first Indian-American governor and perhaps the best prospect for revitalising a Republican Party that has just started its tour of the wilderness, with little else to keep it going other than the sustenance provided by occasional caribou kills by its new folk hero, Sarah Palin.
“He still speaks too fast,” says Roy Fletcher, a Republican strategist in Jindal’s unlikely proving ground: Louisiana, a state with a minuscule south Asian community, and where a white supremacist tried to run for governor in 1991. “That’s his problem. We speak more slowly down here, obviously.”
But slowing down Bobby Jindal’s delivery may be beyond the powers of even the best consultant. His rush of words is likely linked to the rush of his ambition, and his ambition – at 37, just two years above the minimum to be president – appears beyond restraint. He began his assimilation aged four, when he announced to his parents, a civil engineer and state official who moved from the Punjab to Louisiana before their son was born, that he wanted to be called “Bobby”, after a character in the 1970s sitcom The Brady Bunch, rather than his given name, Piyush. He further adapted to his surroundings in his late teens when he left behind his Hindu heritage and converted to Catholicism, a move he chronicled in lengthy confessional writings while at Brown University and then Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar.
After a brief stint as a management consultant, he got his first job in government at 24, when, with the backing of a congressman he had interned for, he submitted a proposal to reform the state’s public health-care system. The governor, impressed, offered him a job as a health department deputy. Jindal all but demanded that he be given the top job instead – and he was. This was followed by spells running the state university system and as a top bureaucrat in the federal health department. He ran for governor at 32, but lost to a Democrat, won a congressional seat the following year, and ran again for governor in 2007 after his former rival had been discredited by her handling of Hurricane Katrina. This time he won, to banner headlines across India. A year later, a few weeks after Barack Obama beat John McCain, there was Bobby Jindal visiting the good people of Cedar Rapids, Iowa – which will hold the first vote three years from now to determine who will lead the Republican rebirth.
Jindal says he has no plans to run for president in 2012. While it is possible he will wait until 2016 if Obama is looking too formidable, it’s the rare Louisianan who is actually taking him at his word. “Anybody who knows Bobby Jindal knows he desperately wants to be president,” said Bob Mann, a former top aide to a Democratic senator. “Nobody goes to Iowa in November just for pleasure.”
To understand why Republicans are so excited about Jindal (the conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh calls him “the next Ronald Reagan”), consider three episodes from their party’s recent past. In 2005, George W Bush’s second term began to unravel when the federal government botched its response to Katrina. In 2006, a Republican senator deemed a possible successor to Bush, Virginia’s George Allen, mocked a young Indian-American man who was trailing him with a video camera for Allen’s underdog opponent – Allen called the young man “macaca”. After an uproar, Allen lost the race. Two years later, McCain underscored the Republicans’ identity as a party that favoured culture wars over position papers when he chose Palin over the likes of Mitt Romney, a former governor and business leader who waffled on abortion but has a good mind for policy.
These episodes, and others like them, have left the Republicans facing an identity crisis. Fiscal conservatives argue the party must retrench around a small government philosophy from which Bush strayed. Social conservatives argue it must more fully capitalise on a religious base that never warmed to McCain. Others say it must appeal to suburban moderates who care more about the government’s effectiveness than its size. Jindal’s allure is that he offers a way around this choice, and an answer to all of the party weaknesses exposed above. Most obviously, he brings to the party of “macaca” some badly needed diversity. There has not been a black Republican congressman or governor for six years, and Hispanic support for the Democrats surged to a sizeable majority in 2008, daunting signs in a country where white people are expected to become a minority by 2042.
Jindal is already emerging as a hero to the party’s fiscally conservative wing. One of his first actions as governor was to slash taxes, and as state health director he cut services with such despatch that he was effectively cast as heartless during his first race for the governorship. He is equally admired by the party’s socially conservative base. He is against abortion without exception and in favour of teaching creationism, and has learned to speak openly of his Christian conversion, a pitch made all the more convincing by his Southern drawl. “Ah’m proud of my Christian faith. Ah’ve got nothing to hide,” he told Fox News during his second campaign for governor. “Ah’ve talked to hundreds of congregations about my decision to become a Christian and accept Jesus Christ.”
Most important, perhaps, is that Jindal has the potential to restore his party’s reputation for basic competence and grasp of public policy. He skipped the last Republican convention to help gird his state for a big hurricane exactly three years after Katrina. That the storm packed less than its expected wallop did little to diminish praise for Jindal, who exuded capability in the televised press conferences (little surprise for a man who delivered one of his own children). His priority at the State Capitol was ethics reform, a good calling card to have, not only in his notoriously corrupt state, but in a national Republican Party that has suffered so many scandals, both sexual and financial, in recent years. Jindal’s policy expertise, meanwhile, is becoming legendary. When Fran Wendelboe, a Republican activist in the key early primary state of New Hampshire, is asked about Jindal, she first mentions not his social conservatism, which she shares, but the time he suggested to her a clever trick by which the state could acquire millions more in federal nursing home funding. When John LaBruzzo, a Republican legislator in Louisiana, once asked a Jindal aide what the governor’s hobby was, he says he was told it was “to read information”.
In a party now known for Bush’s clumsy elocutions and Palin’s trouble with simple policy questions, Jindal’s wonkishness could be as much a novelty as his ethnicity. “He combines the fiscal with the social conservative, and then he has that technocratic edge to him that makes him palatable to moderates and independents,” says Roy Fletcher.
While many have already declared Jindal the “Republican Barack Obama”, the differences between the two men are telling. Where Obama has, after much soul-searching, memoir-writing and Kenya-visiting, embraced his biracial identity, Jindal has sought more to find common cause with white Americans. He loves McDonald’s and took to wearing cowboy boots during his second run for governor. And although he married a fellow Indian American, some relatives in the Punjab complain that he downplays his ties to his ancestral homeland. Where Obama was adrift in his early years, Jindal was raised in a steady household with high expectations and forged straight ahead from early on, showing up at college in penny loafers while Obama slouched with a cigarette. And where Obama has benefited from his eloquence and style, Jindal’s appeal is more workmanlike. He lacks Obama’s big smile and, at 5ft 8in and 135lb, offers little in the way of physical presence.
That is not to say he is lacklustre on the stump. Crowds are drawn by his earnest air and obvious intelligence, and he seems to relish the requisite charades. At a party before a football game, he entertained fans with a list of ten “things we can all agree on”, which included “Obama is . . . the most lib’rul person ever to be nominated by a major party to be president of these United States” and that “the left-wing elitists hate Sarah Palin” because she is “not part of the wine-and-cheese circuit in Washington”. Says Lynn Skidmore, a Louisiana Republican: “This state is in love with him. People think of Bobby Jindal as one of us. Yes, he worked hard to get that image across, but he’s succeeded.”
Jindal has become so adept on the stump, in fact, that some in Louisiana say it is distracting him from the task at hand, as he often flees Baton Rouge to visit voters elsewhere or party activists around the country. With oil revenues dwindling and the recession in full swing, Louisiana faces a $2bn deficit in the next state budget, which will put Jindal’s popularity and budget-cutting abilities to the ultimate test.
It will be a tough year or two, not least because the crisis could further undermine the political appeal of Republican ideas that Jindal, despite all his policy command, has shown little sign of rethinking, such as a plan to make health care more market-driven. “The good news is our ideas still work . . . Our policies still work,” he maintained in a recent TV interview. Also to be seen is how his religiosity plays outside the South; when he was touted as a running mate for McCain, excerpts surfaced from an account he once wrote of a quasi-exorcism he says he witnessed while in college.
None of this keeps Republicans from dreaming of a Jindal-led renaissance. “We haven’t seen the end of him, nor have we really seen a clarified version of him,” says Ed Renwick, a Louisiana political scientist. “He’s always looking ahead, always looking for the next step. Most politicians want to go up – but they don’t go up at the rate that Jindal is going.”
Alec MacGillis is a staff writer for the Washington Post