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The Jindal Phenomenon

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Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal delivers the Republican response to President Obama's address to Congress. Video by AP

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By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal -- selected to deliver the Republicans' Fat Tuesday response to President Obama -- might also be voted the man least likely to let the good times roll. Slight, earnest, deeply religious and supremely wonkish, Jindal resembles neither his flamboyant predecessors as governor nor his reveling, 30-something contemporaries on Bourbon Street. Somehow the hall-monitoring, library-inhabiting, science-fair-winning class president has seized control of the Big Easy. And his coup has been an inspiration to policy geeks everywhere.

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At a recent meeting of conservative activists, Jindal had little to say about his traditional social views or compelling personal story. Instead, he uncorked a fluent, substantive rush of policy proposals and achievements, covering workforce development, biodiesel refineries, quality assurance centers, digital media, Medicare parts C and D, and state waivers to the CMS (whatever that is).

Some have compared Jindal to Obama, but the new president has always been more attracted to platitudes than to policy. Rush Limbaugh has anointed Jindal "the next Ronald Reagan." But Reagan enjoyed painting on a large ideological canvas. In person, Jindal's manner more closely resembles another recent president: Bill Clinton. Like Clinton (a fellow Rhodes scholar), Jindal has the ability to overwhelm any topic with facts and thoughtful arguments -- displaying a mastery of detail that encourages confidence. Both speak of complex policy issues with the world-changing intensity of a late-night dorm room discussion.

In recent days, Jindal has displayed another leadership quality: ideological balance. He is highly critical of the economic theory of the stimulus package and turned down $98 million in temporary unemployment assistance to his state -- benefits that would have mandated increased business taxes in Louisiana. But unlike some Republican governors who engaged in broad anti-government grandstanding, Jindal accepted transportation funding and other resources from the stimulus -- displaying a program-by-program discrimination that will serve him well in public office. Jindal manages to hold to principle while seeing the angles.

While Clintonian in manner, knowledge and political sophistication, Jindal is not ideologically malleable. His high-pressure Asian-immigrant background has clearly taught him not to blend in but to stand out. He has tended to join small, beleaguered minorities -- such as the College Republicans at Brown University. He converted to a traditionalist Catholicism, in a nation where anti-Catholicism has been called "the last acceptable prejudice." Jindal, sometimes accused of excessive assimilation, has actually shown a restless, countercultural, intellectual independence.

But this has earned him some unexpected enthusiasm. In Louisiana, Jindal is the darling of evangelical and charismatic churches, where he often tells his conversion story. One Louisiana Republican official has commented, "People think of Bobby Jindal as one of us." Consider that a moment. In some of the most conservative Protestant communities, in one of the most conservative states in America, Piyush "Bobby" Jindal, a strong Catholic with parents from Punjab, is considered "one of us."

This is a large political achievement. It is also an indication of what has been called the "ecumenism of the trenches" -- the remarkable alliance between evangelicals and Catholics on moral issues such as abortion and family values against an aggressive secularism. Two or three hundred years ago, the Protestant/Catholic divide remained a source of violence. Two or three decades ago, many conservative Protestant churches questioned whether Catholics were properly to be considered Christians. If Jindal runs for president in three or seven years, he will be widely viewed as an evangelical choice.

Ultimately, however, Jindal is a problem-solving wonk, fond of explaining 31-point policy plans (his state ethics reform proposal actually had 31 points). This can have disadvantages -- a lack of human connection and organizing vision. But this approach also has advantages. Jindal is a genuine policy innovator. "His reforms," says Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, "are the only constructive thing Republicans are doing on health care anywhere."

And Jindal's résumé, intellectual confidence and command of policy make him the anti-Palin. Fairly or unfairly, media and intellectual elites (including some conservative elites) regard Gov. Sarah Palin as an inhabitant of another cultural planet. Jindal, while also religious and conservative, speaks the language of the knowledge class and will not be easily caricatured or dismissed. To journalists, policy experts and Rhodes scholars, Jindal is also "one of us."

At this point in the election cycle, no Republican can be considered more than the flavor of the month. But this is an appealing one.

michaelgerson@cfr.org

For Michael Gerson's take on Obama's address last night, see the Post's political opinion blog, PostPartisan.


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