Normally this space takes a look at, then grades, governors’ State of the State addresses that occur right at the opening of the regular session of the Louisiana Legislature, mere minutes after their completions. Not so this time, as everybody knew what was coming with this one. But what this one lacked in revelation, its novelty got made up for by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tone and substance, perhaps telling us there’s a faster march here than generally expected.
The long march, we knew about already. Jindal has been a cautious reformer, where the product of extent of agenda and its speed did not equal much travelled – even if it made him the most conservative, reform-oriented governor in the state’s history, given the paucity of either coming from his predecessors. On a very few big changes, Jindal always took the path of least resistance by going far concerning policy changes with wide and broad consensus (such as with ethics reform), but pulled up considerably when tackling issues of greater controversy by tinkering at the margins (such as with fiscal reforms). Indeed, if not for a recessionary environment triggered and recovery from it stifled by, ironically enough, the policies of his partisan and ideological opponents, which he could use as justification for squeezing more efficiency and sloughing off its bloat, the ongoing right-sizing of state government never may have happened to the extent it did in his first four years.
But with this speech, Jindal served notice that he wasn’t going to play station-to-station baseball anymore. He brought out explicitly ideological language, and twice called opposition preferences “absurd.” This was Jindal not playing it safe by merely tooting his own horn blaring administration accomplishments to lend credibility and build support for a broad but slow-moving agenda stream, but rather his attempting to persuade by appealing broadly using a winning product in the marketplace of ideas. He tried to explain, mostly on the education reform issue complex, mostly in generalities, why his ideas were superior to those of his opponents.
This Jindal rarely has been sighted in public. In speeches, the closest he got was four years ago in describing ethics reform both in his inaugural and State of the State speeches, while in other public political discourse, flashes of this came the past fall when he spoke out in favor of candidates for that would create a massive majority for him on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. It’s the Jindal that some of the visceral, populist conservatives of the state thought they were getting when he won his first term, and had they seen more of him like this, they might not have felt so hurt by what they saw as his equivocations on their agenda, to the point they wandered off into bizarre, decidedly un-conservative, simplistic ramblings such as equating tuition increases at state colleges to tax increases in an effort to hurt Jindal back.
It’s also the Jindal that national Democrats and liberals in politics and the media were wary of before and early in his first term. For them, perhaps with relief, that image collapsed into to one of a technocrat that tinkers with government, exposed they thought as a limited conservative transformer when he delivered an uninspiring rejoinder to Pres. Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address. Following up this speech’s words with deeds might return their fears.
And it also may indicate that Jindal has plans to turn the long but slow march into a sprint. Maybe it’s due to the successes he’s seen other governors of his ideological persuasion enjoy, or perhaps it’s a result of the crack-up of liberalism as it airs its internal contradictions through demonstrations of policy failure writ large, nationally and unambiguously. Or, it could be that this has been the plan all along.
That is, in a first term, Jindal plotted to be a cautious reformer, picking off the low-hanging fruit with vigor while making few forays into the higher branches in order to equip him for a second term by expanding a popular base that translated into more sympathetic alternate power centers (the Legislature and BESE) for his agenda. This gained for him overwhelming reelection, even a mandate, and in that process also the influence to tip even further the balances of these other centers more towards him. That mission accomplished, he might now be signaling he’s ready to become a true transformative force.
Certainly it has put his ideological opponents on their back feet. So unnerved they have become that they decided to produce for media consumption a rebuttal, which was long on vague allegations to merit rejection of his program, but short of any real ideas other than to do more of what has been done already that hasn’t worked and to claim with little justification that elements of it were unconstitutional. Most tellingly, they accepted the premise that they only could tinker at the margins of this agenda, offering half-hearted, if not half-baked ideas to try to limit Jindal’s sweep.
His agenda certainly lends itself to that, where even partial victories would bring about major change. Now it’s a matter of execution that will determine whether he has teased (repeated behavior, some reformers and conservatives would argue) or he can deliver real, lasting, significant, and beneficial change. As narrow as the speech was, limited to just the major issues of education and retirement reform, for its ambition and scope, it deserves top marks.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 08:25