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Bad timing, Obama policy failures cause Jindal exit

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s presidential campaign ended abruptly today, the most serious candidacy ever by a Louisianan ironically ultimately undone by a divisive and unpopular president’s policies that put the Republican in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When Jindal assumed office in 2008, he seemed set up well to target the White House down the road. A brilliant, principled conservative paired with a Legislature still controlled nominally by Democrats but teetering on the brink of passing over to Republican control, a success story awaited him: by instituting a conservative agenda to wrench the state away from its populist past, in the years ahead after implementing those fundamental changes he could have the chance to point to that record of accomplishment as a reason to promote him.

But he achieved only partial results. Wisely, he started with the easy stuff with a wide mandate like ethics reform, and then broached out in a technocratic manner to make government work more efficiently by curbing the giveaway mentality that so infused Louisiana public policy, latent populism assigning as it did government the role of redistributor in chief, through policy such as Medicaid reform. The strategy then dictated building up political capital this way through not asking the Legislature for big policy changes and concentrating on what could be altered through changes in administrative practices. Ensuring this way a second term and hopefully GOP legislative majorities (which happened), then the first part of that one he could dedicate to big policy changes to position himself with an excellent résumé should a presidential run still seem possible and desirable.

Unfortunately for him, political tides got in the way. A year after his election, for Pres. Barack Obama a lucky confluence of events put the Democrat into office with majorities for his party in Congress. Already facing a national economic slowdown and one specific to Louisiana as the falsely hyper-inflated state economy from the hurricane disasters of 2005 began to diminish, Obama’s economically destructive policies ratified by a lapdog Congress turned a mild recession into the worst economic recovery in U.S. history that only today has the country at levels equivalent to those of when he took office. These forces provided economic headwinds in the state difficult to overcome, meaning Jindal could not pursue more grandiose policy changes. When an underperforming national economy and national government policy sidelines people from working and reversed wage gains, less revenue comes in to state government and more clamor for government support, this creates budgetary pressures that forestall getting away from big government.

In retrospect, had Jindal gone big right off the bat, he would have had a far better chance to win the presidency in 2012. The weakness of the 2012 GOP field surpassed that even of the 2008 derby, and within two years Obama had alienated the American public that by now his presidency has produced a net Democrat loss of 13 Senate seats, 69 House of Representatives seats, 12 governorships, 30 state legislative chambers, and over 900 state legislative seats. Had Republicans nominated a principled conservative, as opposed to their eventual nominee, they stood a great chance of making Obama a one-term president.

With Jindal’s ability to articulate conservatism and a record of accomplishment as a chief executive of a state, he could have become that strong candidate. The problem was, he did not have that couple of signature policy achievements after his first term that he could parlay into a national candidacy. By the time Obama’s vulnerability and the extraordinary weakness of GOP contenders became obvious, it was too late to develop such a portfolio.

In the first part of his next term, he did begin to produce some significant achievements, most prominently in education and indigent health care reform. But because of the Obama-impaired national economy, he lost traction on ambitious tax reform and had to shelve it, and afterwards the budgetary difficulties created by the national environment really began to hamper his plans.

That compounded the fact of life that the changes Jindal tried to induce presented even more severe challenges than in most states, courtesy of the populist political heritage of the state. As opposed to most other places, Jindal would have to make larger course corrections; for example, populist sentiment written into law made him unable to sell off the state’s charity hospitals and he had to settle with making them cumbersome public-private endeavors. Thus, he could not achieve as much as he needed to become a higher quality national candidate and his bucking the system in part drove down his poll numbers.

Yet some of that popularity decline came from his own tactical errors. During his last two years in office, he began to concentrate on issues that could play well nationally but sometimes did not translate well to Louisiana; for example, his sudden infatuation with ridding the state of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an issue that largely fizzled despite an intense minority agreeing with him. Picking these battles on that basis made him appear at times disconnected and distracted from state matters.

And, as it turns out, the 2016 GOP presidential field developed into not just one of the strongest in recent memory, but also became shaped more than typically by rank-and-file interest in outsiders from politics. In 2012, someone outside of Washington rated highly, and Jindal would have fit the bill well. But by 2016, even that paled in comparison to those outside of politics entirely. Jindal tried to position himself as an outsider to the Washington Republican political establishment, but found himself Trumped (sorry) by first-timers who made their marks in other fields of endeavor with no political experience at all. They stole that thunder, and eventually made his position in the field untenable.

Had events happened differently, or he had timed things better, Jindal could have made a formidable candidate. What could have come off as remarkable in 2012 provided just a footnote in 2015. His strategy for the presidency seems to have worn out his welcome in Louisiana, and with abandonment of his campaign he may have no other electoral political future, unless he can snag a high-level appointment in a Republican presidential administration and build from there.

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