Bobby Jindal wants to be the ‘ideas’ candidate in 2016. But will that be enough?

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal unveiled a health care plan this week, a proposal that would repeal Obamacare and replace it with a plan stuffed full of ideas that will appeal to conservative activists.

It's the latest sign of how Jindal and his advisers believe he can catapult himself into the top tier of 2016 Republican candidates and, ultimately, to the party's nomination: By being the 'ideas' guy, the person who will lead the way on a new Republican agenda for the country.  Soon after the 2012 presidential election, Jindal famously/infamously insisted that the GOP had to "stop being the stupid party." He has also said that “anybody on the Republican side even thinking or talking about running for president in 2016...needs to get their head examined and the reason I say that is we’ve lost two presidential elections in a row....We need to be winning the debate of ideas — then we’ll win elections."  Last October, Jindal formed America Next, a 501(c)(4) group based in Washington, D.C., with the express purpose of winning the "war of ideas."


Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., on Thursday, March 6, 2014. CPAC, a project of the American Conservative Union (ACU), runs until Saturday, March 8. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Bobby Jindal

In trying to seize the 'ideas guy' slot in a presidential nomination fight, Jindal is adding his name to a rich tradition. Newt Gingrich ran as the ideas candidate in the 2012 campaign. (Gingrich is the living embodiment of the 'ideas guy' candidate; you could call the ideas candidate the "Newton Leroy Gingrich" slot.) In the 2000 Democratic presidential race, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley was the 'ideas guy'."  Both Steve Forbes and John Kasich tried to be the ideas person in the 2000 Republican presidential field.

All of those candidates have something in common: They didn't win their party's nomination.  In fact, the only candidate in recent memory who could be described as the 'ideas' candidate  and who won was Bill Clinton back in 1992.  But Clinton is quite clearly the exception, not the rule.

"Ideas alone are not enough," said Steve Schmidt who managed John McCain's 2008 presidential bid. "Certainly it is true that the party is bereft of policy ideas but the bigger issue is a lack of vision."

In conversations with a number of unaffiliated Republican consultants, fundraisers and activists, some version of Schmidt's assessment kept cropping up when I mentioned Jindal. Nice guy, good ideas but not the sort of charismatic messenger that can translate smart ideas into a popular message. "He will be the ideas guy if he runs," said one prominent Republican strategists not aligned with any of the potential candidates. "But that'll make him the Newt of '16 without Newt's oratory abilities or name ID. Another way to look at it: he's [former Minnesota Gov. Tim] Pawlenty -- with even less sizzle."

A Jindal adviser rejected the Gingrich comparison. "This is not just a philosopher here," said the Jindal source. "He's not just a thinker.  He's a doer in the real world.  And he's a guy who is money in times of trouble -- from Katrina to Gustav to the BP oil spill....when things go wrong and somebody needs to solve big problems and take charge -- he's at his best."

Others were skeptical that Jindal would have the ideas slot to himself.  One veteran GOP consultant noted that "[Marco] Rubio is methodically developing an array of issues and ideas, Rand Paul is a prodigious ideas generator, and even lesser lights like Mike Lee are getting attention for breaking the GOP ideas mold." The source added: "In the 'ideas guy' space, there is a wide spectrum between 'super-smart wonk' and 'inspiring visionary leader' and – up to now at least – Jindal has been closer to the 'wonk' category – and that does not galvanize donors or party activists at the presidential level."

Jindal still seems to be suffering in these circles to distance himself from his 2009 response to President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress. Jindal's delivery was flat and, to be kind, hokey. Late night TV seized on it.

While no one who will cast a vote in Iowa or New Hampshire even remembers that speech -- if they ever saw it at all -- it's quite clear that the Republican donor/chattering class has had its perception of Jindal influenced by that less-than-impressive performance. To a person, everyone we talked to praised Jindal's deep policy knowledge and smarts while, literally in the next sentence, raising doubts about whether he had the charisma to turn ideas into momentum.

"Governor Jindal changes the dynamics if he’s on the debate stage and would make everyone need to bring their policy 'A' game to the table," said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committeeman from Mississippi. "But it will take more than that to win the nomination, but it gives him a good foundation."

And that's the fundamental question facing Jindal -- even if you assume that he can be the 'ideas' candidate in the field. Influencing debates is one thing, winning the nomination is something entirely different. Jindal, who will be term limited out of the Louisiana governorship in 2017 2015, isn't the sort of person who would charge at a political windmill. (His resume is dauntingly impressive.)  Our guess? Jindal spends the next year rolling out a series of policy proposals/reforms aimed at influencing the debate within the GOP and then sees where he stands in the field at the end of that time.

"The Governor hasn't decided if he will run or not," said the Jindal adviser. "And what he is doing right now, with America Next, he would do even regardless of whether he ever runs again....His entire career has been in pursuit of creating and enacting conservative policy reforms.  It drives him."

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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