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Conservative critics of Jindal may forget larger perspective

Gov. Bobby Jindal will give the official Republican response to Pres. Barack Obama’s speech tonight, in part because he has become a favorite of conservative standard-bearers both formerly inside (ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich) and outside (talk show host Rush Limbaugh) of the GOP. But some Louisiana conservatives have grown to dislike Jindal, so it’s instructive to understand why many leading national lights of conservatism find Jindal so compelling, while some lesser but local lights of it don’t.

Jindal’s record is his record regardless of who you are, and all concerned are familiar with it over the past year:

  • His first action upon assuming the governorship was minor reductions in personnel and spending of state government. Later, critics would say this didn’t do a whole lot and that numbers of personnel employed by the state actually went up, even though the full-time equivalent number of positions over which the state spent its non-federal revenues Jindal actually did reduce in his initial budget.
  • Jindal started with ethics reform that substantially tightened regulations and also depoliticized the adjudication process. But critics argue Jindal, who put forward the recommendations, did not go far enough and they did not like the fact that enforcement standards were taken out of the hands of gubernatorial appointees, and he tolerated a change (admittedly in line with many other states) that raised the burden of proof to find violations
  • Next, Jindal pushed through a package that allocated some $1 billion of surplus money to long-term projects like coastal restoration and minor shoring of unfunded liabilities, but spent the majority on public works projects. Critics said much more could have been used to pay down debt and/or provide a one-time tax rebate. They also complained that any spending was excessive if it broke the state’s spending cap regardless of the nature of the spending.
  • Jindal also got removed a few inefficient taxes on business to the tune of about $100 million. His critics noted this was an acceleration and expansion of moves begun by former Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
  • With current state spending, Jindal produced a budget that was lower in overall size because of a large reduction in federal recovery dollars but represented a small increase in spending of state resources, in the process removing a large portion of one-time funds budgeted to recurring activities (although he did not go as far as legislative leaders wanted). Critics said he too often took credit for the overall reduction while ignoring the increase of state spending from increased state revenues, and he really should have been cutting the size of state spending over the previous year.
  • Despite saying that he hoped to cut income taxes during his term, Jindal at best initially was lukewarm to a proposal to do just that early in it. Eventually he came around but his critics said he should have led the charge from the start. They also accused him of allowing House Speaker Jim Tucker to put in a provision to force employers to withhold the new lower amount not at the beginning of 2009, but no earlier than the middle, meaning this reduced withholding would not happen automatically but would have to be requested by individuals who qualified unless they were content with waiting for it to be calculated as part of their tax settlements in 2010.
    Certainly Jindal has not been a perfect conservative on every issue. For some things he could cite extenuating circumstances, such as his hesitancy over the individual income tax cut was due to a realization that the false economic boom of the state for a couple of years after the 2005 hurricane disasters came from a massive unloading of federal money into the state and a cut would take a couple of years before the higher revenues from increased economic activity would offset the temporary decrease in revenues from the cut. Sometimes he had to cut deals with the Legislature such as preventing
    use of surplus monies to full fund the Budget Stabilization Fund which would have eased the state’s budgetary problems this year that Jindal then knew were on the way. In other ways he has some blind spots, such as inflating an economic development fund to attract employers that has had no successes to date and only masks the state’s economic development ills rather than cures them. And in some ways Jindal also has been underappreciated by conservatives; no governor has done more to enact school choice, for example, than Jindal.

    But simultaneously it’s obvious that Jindal’s record on the whole is conservative and that he got things done which had not been. Not even his staunchest conservative critics can credibly argue that any previous governor would have embraced and done most of the things Jindal has done. Even if it fell short of an ideal, no governor had made ethics reform a priority. Except in recessionary times, past governors seldom presented budgets to reduce government FTE positions paid by non-federal dollars. It had been almost two decades since priority was placed on matching recurring expenditures to recurring revenues. It’s unbelievable that the likes of Blanco and her predecessors would not have shot down the individual income tax cut the minute it hit committee, but Jindal was so torn between tax-cutting instincts and fiscal imperatives that he eventually went for the former that would create a bigger short-term headache for him with the latter.

    These are the actions of a conservative and represent the first real break from the populist strain that ran through the fiber of even past Republican governors, all of whom argued at least at one point for tax increases which Jindal repeatedly has rejected as a fiscal tool. If Jindal does not maximize in all areas conservative, it also is worth remembering that the most significant conservative (as well as one of the most important and outstanding historically) president of our time, Ronald Reagan, pursued some policies that were not conservative, such as hiking payroll taxes and disaplying insufficient will in cutting government domestic spending; by these metrics, Jindal would be considered the more conservative of the two.

    So why have some conservatives become such harsh critics of Jindal? It’s probably no accident that national conservatives tend to see the sum of Jindal as a whole because they are more distant from the immediacy of the political conflicts within the state. Those more on the scene are more tempted to infuse larger importance to each and every issue and make them more personal. Thus, all victories and disappointments become huge, but the latter loom larger because they fail to match an ideal that is unlikely to exist anywhere in politics in a pure form. (Jindal perhaps bears some of the blame for arousing passionate disappointments when they come because his rhetoric tends to the grandiose in describing principle when articulating policy.)

    Perhaps the major reason why conservatism presents a much more valid understanding of human beings than liberalism is it is based upon fact and logic uncluttered by emotion. When conservatives, out of passion whenever a conservative politician fails to reach their ideal, begin to lose perspective on the bigger picture encompassing the ideological credentials of such an official, while their criticisms remain valuable the quality of their judgment of that politician’s policy contributions declines.

    Maybe a good way to view this is to ask both conservative supporters and detractors of Republican Jindal whether they would trade him for Democrat Obama, or Republican California Gov.
    Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Democrat Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, or even to bring back Blanco to run Louisiana. Surely it’s certain none would want that. They may not even want to swap him with the likes of Republican Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour or Republican Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

    Jindal is not the Messiah (Obama
    seems to have taken that job in the minds of many, anyway). But neither is he unworthy of conservatives’ support, given a clear-headed analysis of his record.

    Anonymous said...

    Let's wait till after the legislative session before deciding if we'd prefer Haley Barbour. I do wish that Jindal would run for president later in his tenure as governor and devote a bit more time to the current endeavor...

    Pat Austin Becker said...

    Well said.

    Anonymous said...

    Jeff you're way past the Jindal condensed kool-aid, you're snorting the powder