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Gustav handling boosts Jindal but Palin still out front

Undoubtedly Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal acquitted himself well in his handling of the Hurricane Gustav crisis which led to few deaths, far fewer and with much less destruction than with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He had help – New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin seemed to have learned lessons from his inadequate response in 2005, other local officials around the southern part of the state performed well, and Orleans-area levees appeared to be in better shape – and a little luck – Gustav was a little weaker and struck more of a glancing blow than Katrina – but management of a crisis always starts at the top so the major credit goes to Jindal.

For the moment, it strengthened his national political stature and boosted his pecking order in the Republican Party. But make no mistake, as I demonstrated last week, Jindal cannot rise any higher than second as long as the party’s vice presidential nominee Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin does not self-destruct. If she wants to pursue a presidential nomination in 2012 (if she and presidential nominee Sen. John McCain fail this year or they succeed and he wants to stay for just a term) or 2016, it’s hers to lose.

So far, in her mere days in the national spotlight, Palin is reinvigorating the party and promising to bring it back to its conservative roots which were responsible for the party’s electoral and the country’s policy successes. Realistically, her impact on people’s voting decisions will not be large but it could matter in a close race. But if on her own, running for the nomination to the office, so far the returns are impressive. Jindal, for all his skills and now considering her added exposure, will not be able to compete effectively against her.

But of more immediate concern is the impact Jindal made in Louisiana with his crisis-management skills. They will serve to smooth bumps in the road of his own doing, his dithering during the last regular session over coming on board a realistic individual income tax cut and over shooting down with a near-last-minute veto an absurdly gratuitous full-time pay raise for part-time legislators. Jindal may have feared future reactions from legislators by hanging out so many of them to dry by putting them on record with this toxic vote, but there’s no political ill that popularity can’t cure. If as a result of this episode Jindal finds his public approval at the level it was before the regular session began, he will have mooted their damaging effects.

Conservatives often do not govern as effectively as they could, precisely because they see government as a last resort that otherwise intrudes upon liberty. (Contrast this to the liberal conception of government as a desirable change agent to be used as the lead plow horse to remake society and people in the way they deem best.) If there’s one thing Jindal has shown in his several months in office, regardless of political missteps, is that he does know administration and can provide leadership. This crisis provided an (unwanted) opportunity to put it on display.

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