By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
One Rhodes scholarship applicant stood out on the long roster of Louisiana's high achievers: 20-year-old Bobby Jindal. He so impressed the state's selection committee with his intelligence and eloquence that the judges hashed over the contenders for just 30 seconds before picking Jindal as a finalist. It took them 45 minutes to settle on the second finalist.
"At the time, I was feeling I was on a good career path," recalled committee member David Vitter, a Republican who had just won election to the state legislature and now is Louisiana's junior senator. "I came home and told my wife, 'I just met somebody today who makes me feel both stupid and old.' "
Now, 17 years later, Jindal is governor of Louisiana and the anointed boy wonder of a Republican Party left battered by the 2008 election and hungry for new leadership. Jindal's audition on the national stage is tonight, when he delivers his party's response to President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress.
Jindal, 37, was still working last night on the 10-minute speech. Aides said he is writing it himself, although he has received input from party leaders. The fast-talking governor plans to rehearse with a teleprompter today before giving the address live from the governor's mansion in Baton Rouge.
This is the grandest opportunity of Jindal's young political life, and the governor is banking on impressing Americans just as he wowed the Rhodes panel. But in his star moment, Jindal is being anything but cautious. Leading up to his speech, Jindal has voiced withering criticism of Obama's $787 billion economic recovery package, becoming the most prominent of a handful of Republican governors from Southern states to say they will reject some federal funds in the stimulus plan.
Jindal's gamble -- on display Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" and again yesterday at the White House when Obama warned governors not to play politics with the stimulus -- is widely regarded by GOP strategists as an attempt to burnish his fiscal-conservative credentials in expectation of a presidential bid, perhaps as early as 2012.
The son of Indian immigrants, Jindal is the first nonwhite governor of Louisiana since Reconstruction and offers the GOP an attractive rival to Obama.
"Look, I think every American is incredibly proud by the president's personal story, the fact that we will be seeing him addressing his first joint session of Congress tomorrow night, and I have been selected and honored to give . . . the Republican response," Jindal said yesterday.
In picking a governor to deliver tonight's speech, GOP leaders are acknowledging that without a majority in Congress, the big ideas necessary to rebuild their party are likely to come from state capitols. Jindal is among several GOP governors harboring national ambitions, a group that includes Florida's Charlie Crist, Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty, South Carolina's Mark Sanford and Utah's Jon M. Huntsman Jr.
"States really have been the incubators of national change, and that is particularly the case when your party's out of power," Sanford said.
Huntsman noted, "The ideas are not going to come from the Congress, but rather from the incubators of democracy called the states, where governors are going to be able to actually do something."
Not that the party's congressional leaders are ceding that territory to the governors. "We view the Senate now as the incubator of ideas," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said in an interview yesterday with Washington Post journalists. He said Senate Republicans will be offering an increasing number of amendments to Democratic bills as a way to lay out a vision for the party. "We are road-testing Republican ideas on the floor of the Senate -- in great numbers."
In Jindal, the GOP has chosen a charismatic spokesman with intellectual heft. At 24, Jindal was Louisiana's health secretary, a job in which he was known as an efficient technocrat. After other high-level posts, Jindal narrowly lost a bid for governor in 2003. He was elected to Congress the next year and ran again for governor in 2007, this time winning.
Fourteen months into his governorship, Jindal has signed stricter ethics laws and was widely hailed for his mastery of the state's response to last fall's Hurricane Gustav.
"He's a very attractive, young, I would say, future star, but I'm not so sure stardom's in the future," said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), a former GOP national chairman. "I think it may already be here."
Jindal drew criticism at home recently for crisscrossing the country raising campaign funds. "His approval ratings have been up in the 60s," said John Maginnis, a Louisiana political analyst. "But at the same time, they're getting a little impatient with his constant traveling."
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said constituents are asking, "Geez, he's only been governor for a year, and right now the people of Louisiana really need a governor."
Jindal drew attention for his uncharacteristic outspokenness against the stimulus after announcing Friday that his state would reject funds from a provision to expand eligibility for unemployment, which he said ultimately would result in employers paying more taxes.
"The $100 million we turned down was temporary federal dollars that would require us to change our unemployment laws," Jindal said on "Meet the Press." "That would've actually raised taxes on Louisiana businesses."
But that provision is a small fraction of the overall stimulus funds flowing to Louisiana, and an amendment to the bill allows state legislatures to overrule governors and accept the funds.
Even as he criticizes the stimulus bill, Jindal is asking Congress for an additional $5 billion to $6 billion to help rebuild the Gulf Coast, said Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.). "There seems to be significant hypocrisy," Clyburn said. "Why would you be interested in rebuilding the levees and not be interested in helping the people stand themselves back up?"
In a meeting with governors at the White House, Obama criticized some governors for being partisan. He did not mention Jindal by name, but he looked toward him and Barbour, who has taken a similar stance.
"If we agree on 90 percent of this stuff, and we're spending all our time on television arguing about 1, 2, 3 percent of the spending in this thing, and somehow it's being characterized in broad brush as wasteful spending, that starts sounding more like politics," Obama said. "And that's what right now we don't have time to do."
Staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.