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Jindal's chances injured by populism; now using it

If the seemingly-outmanned Virginia Cavaliers could take down the mighty defending champion Vanderbilt Commodores in college baseball, then maybe Gov. Bobby Jindal can win the presidency of the United States. The trick is in convincing the electorate that he can run the playbook better than he did as governor.

Yesterday, Jindal made his official announcement that he will seek the presidency of the United States, but that served as mere punctuation. Talk about a presidential run began as soon as he succeeded on his second try for governor in 2007, revisiting the scuttlebutt that had surrounded the likes of former Govs. Buddy Roemer in the late 1980s and John McKeithen in the 1960s that they compete for nomination by Democrats. But in making it official, he is the first Louisianan since former Gov. Huey Long to openly declare he will contest for a major party nomination who has a non-trivial chance of winning it (although he has not followed the Kingfish in writing about what he’ll do in his first few days in the White House if elected). And observers who think this announcement is part of a larger strategy primarily designed to land him a post-gubernatorial job in a Republican presidential administration, as a national political pundit, or as a leader of a public policy interest group, misjudge the man.

No, Jindal is in it to win it. There’s no reason he should think otherwise, despite very low polling numbers. His whole life has followed a path of unlikely success. His parents hardly having been in the U.S. when he was born, he succeeded handsomely in every academic sense, started close to the top of the state’s bureaucracy after a short stint in the private sector just a couple of years after graduate studies, and moved into the upper reaches of the federal bureaucracy before expressing intent to run for governor in 2003. Starting low in the polls, he outdistanced other more experienced Republicans and Democrats alike to win the most votes in the general election, but lost in the runoff, yet parlayed that into a convincing U.S. House of Representatives win a year later and subsequent reelection. Nothing could stop his gubernatorial quest in 2007 and he secured reelection even more impressively in 2011. Simply, he has succeeded in everything meaningful that he has tried, and there’s no reason to believe he does not think the presidency is within reach, especially with a GOP field so fragmented at this point.

Whether that trend culminates at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, this year or in the future, is another matter. Because the putative field is so large, candidates especially need something distinguishing about them to get noticed. Demographically, Jindal is not the only non-white candidate, and is joined by a couple of Hispanics as well. Neither is he the only first-generation American, nor the only Catholic. He’s got competition from at least three ex-governors, several southerners, with more of both in and out of that office and the Senate likely to jump in.

Nor on the issues can he position himself uniquely. Jindal has made a number of high profile, nationally-covered statements on social and cultural issues in the past few months, but the likes of Rick Santorum has been doing it for four years and Mike Huckabee for the last eight. As governor he’s guided state spending downwards and joined in cutting taxes (at least early in his career), but so has Rick Perry who did it bigger and longer. Jindal vastly expanded the choice aspect in education reform, but undeclared candidate Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin also continued that effort in his state and fought off teacher unions calling for his head. Senator candidates can claim greater experience dealing in foreign affairs and in national politics. There’s just nothing that separates him decisively in such a deep field that in pretty much every area at least one other candidate has as good if not a better case to make as a leader and policy-maker. And most of the politician candidates in the bunch who left or are leaving office soon did or will do so with more admiration from their respective state’s partisan allies and the public.

This could have turned out differently. In early 2013, after having proposed a tax reform program generally good but needing some changes, Jindal abandoned the effort at the start of the regular legislative session and with it largely any effort to engage in proactive policy-making, surprising some allies and disheartening others. This followed his most notable success since the end of the first year of his second term, reactively, getting Louisiana to shed in part its inefficient, cumbersome public hospital model as the main driver of indigent care through bringing in nongovernment managers, and what he has pursued since at best has transformed to conservatism only marginally a state where when his first term was transitioning into his second it looked as if he would hit the gas pedal on this agenda.

Both the failure of tax reform and the qualified success of reconfiguring out of the charity hospital model not only showed the limits imposed upon Jindal by the state’s political culture, but also the role his motivations and choices thereof played. In the case of the former, built primarily on the idea of elimination of the income tax, all cannot be winners. Wiping out income taxes meant not only raising sales taxes but also doing away with credits that made many poor households’ liability zero and with refunds some of those received. And because of the exceptions written in that also substantially reduce marginal sales tax rates depending on the mix of goods obtained (and that services were exempt completely), the sales tax rate to make for revenue neutrality would have to increase significantly and include services but in the process make the revenue-raising system less efficient than ever.

Far more sensible would have been to end almost all, if not all, statutory exceptions and set low flat rates for both kinds of taxation, the simplification of which would induce major efficiency gains in collection and deployment of capital in more productive ways, with both of these effects spurring future economic growth. However, as in all tax reform even of the revenue neutral variety, there are winners and losers, and the fact is some poorer people would have under this plan an aggregate higher tax bill (even as those receiving government services in Louisiana take in, tax free, on average over $26,500 in benefits annually) – small increases for many measuring in the dozens of dollars per year, but still higher – and some wealthier would see tax decreases.

This is anathema to those who carry as an article of faith that the optimal tax regime never increases taxes on the poor, only on the wealthy, despite the fact that, because of both its built-in progressive rates and the nature of its tax exceptions, that Louisiana has a tax system that is too progressive and serves as a major causal reason why for decades the state has lagged the country in indicators such as economic growth, per capita income, and business climate. And the major causal reason why the system developed as it did in Louisiana was because of its populist political culture that insisted others would pay for your stuff because it was only “fair.” This is why only a few who do not subscribe to the article of faith have enough fortitude to avoid getting feet of clay on this kind of policy: they do not want to be known as wanting to raise taxes on the “poor” – even if the system (by the data) is already too punishing to the most productive elements, goes overboard in preference to lower-income individuals, and the change would create more opportunity for the deserving poor to clamber out of that poverty by enticing more people pull the wagon while fewer sit in it.

Jindal was no exception in having this trepidation, which is why his plan eventually became so complicated in an effort to avoid any claims that taxes would go up for any of the poor that it fell of its own weight, too easily subject to demagoguery by his ideological enemies and too difficult for his natural allies to understand. And while at one end of the scale the populist tradition in Louisiana set up a more difficult environment in which to pull this off, at the other end it could be argued that, with his sights set on grander things, Jindal might have been too fearful of seeing it through in order to avoid encountering the usual epithets that the left and the media would hurl at him such as “mean-spirited.” Thus, he jettisoned the whole thing – the last major policy change he would try to initiate.

He may have had another in mind prior to that in 2012, transformation of indigent health care, but it was thrust upon him and not of his own initiative when with little warning Congress excised Louisiana’s special bonus in Medicaid reimbursement instituted after the hurricane disasters of 2005. To his credit, he saw this as an opportunity to exit the public hospital anachronism, and partially succeeded.

Yet only partially, because of the remnants of that populism which had birthed the charity system to begin with. That sentiment was encapsulated into state law, demanding legislative approval of closure of hospitals. The minority Democrats would vote against 2+2=4 if Jindal said he was for it, and there were enough Republicans out there of the populist mold that would see selling off a state hospital in or near their districts as something that might cause some state employees to lose jobs and induce reductions of spending in the area to deem this as harmful to their reelection chances that Jindal knew he could not get the required votes to close any. So he opted for the hybrid model of state ownership but nongovernment operators, which is more efficient than the previous arrangement but less so than outright nongovernment ownership and operation, leaving plenty of room for lingering controversy.

And, just for an exclamation point, Jindal (and many other elected officials) never had the courage to confront a Louisiana fiscal structure that bloats state per capita spending, leading him to adopt workarounds that aggravated some, including conservatives (of which some were among those too cowardly to seek the proper solutions in the first place). Altogether, in terms of accomplishments that also lead to popularity, Jindal had a more difficult task than most, if not all, of his governor competitors for the presidency in getting stuff done, but, at the same time, that he didn’t pull these things off, in part or in whole, can serve as an indicator of the lukewarm quality of president that he could be – for either of the reasons that he did not have the skill to do so or he did not try hard enough to do so because he felt the risks were too great concerning his presidential chances.

As a result, among GOP candidates for president Jindal now is seen as a longshot and not as one of the multiple, interchangeable frontrunners – as yet. Had he been bolder and taken the attitude that it was tax reform or bust and got it done, the ensuing credentials he would have acquired might have vaulted him higher in the present pecking order. Conversely, had he gone for broke with indigent care transformation and gotten no change, unquestionably Louisiana would be in a worse place on that issue and while he would be short credit on that, he also would be without certain current complaints.

Yet this does not mean that Jindal cannot become a frontrunner and even win. While in various issue areas other candidates may excel, in the large field many also have strikes against them – too socially liberal, too big of a spender, too isolationist, etc. – mines that Jindal largely avoids. Slow and steady wins this race, and if conservative voters parse candidates carefully, he may end up on a lot of their shortlists. His campaign seems to recognize this, as his announcement attempted to connect several issue preferences into a larger ideological framework that should reinforce his broad spectrum conservatism among a nomination audience significantly more ideological than the Republican mass base and population in general, relying on a perception that he leads an insurgent movement against a prevailing Washington, D.C., political culture – not unlike the contrast between the ideas behind many of his policies as governor and Louisiana’s political culture, and convince that he can do it as well if not better at the national level.

Indeed, current events may assist him. Today’s Supreme Court decision that declares the law does not mean what it says, but whatever the Court makes it say through the enhanced interrogation method of tortured reasoning to fit a political agenda, only confirms his description of the national government of continually empowering itself at the expense of the people and representative democracy. And should he keep on this line of rhetoric, oddly he moves closer and closer to embracing something he rarely has as governor and that which proved his greatest obstacle – populism, but of the conservative variety that includes government as one of the oppressive forces denying people their full liberty and equal opportunity to succeed. It's easy to forget that his runs for governor featured similar rhetoric, about a broken Louisiana system, which did co-opt populist features.

If able to cast himself successfully as best able to make this sea change, this may be enough to survive and to advance through the first few primaries and caucuses into a position of strength, and then beyond. Otherwise, his speech yesterday may end up the high-water mark of his political career, where his failure to secure the nomination or subsequent election win will not have come from trying to bring a conservative agenda thoroughly intellectually supported into fruition, but that as governor he tried too timidly – perhaps in part because of his ambitions for the future – to institute this agenda so at odds with the state’s political culture. Of course, the ultimate irony is that he will have shepherded that principled conservatism sufficiently to have caused significant transformation in the state’s fabric of politics, while at the national level he now takes on in campaigning the populist overtones he largely eschewed in governing and had to overcome then to try to win a contest in an environment less populist than from the one he came.

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