Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal makes an important point in a Politico op-ed this morning. He writes:
The fact of the matter is that we in the Republican Party are not yet prepared to take on the task of winning back the White House. And our lack of preparation has nothing to do with candidates—it has to do with our agenda. The voters know that we oppose Obama. What they don’t really know is what we would do if they gave us the car keys. How would we reform and improve education? What is our plan for health care, once we repeal Obamacare? How will we make America energy independent? What exactly will we do to stop our entitlement programs from going bankrupt? And how will we get America’s economy growing again? The voters demand answers to these questions. And they deserve them.
Jindal's point is part of a broader argument made in the piece that Republicans need to focus less on jockeying for 2016 and more on figuring out what a Republican agenda might look like heading into that election. "There is no question that Republicans in the federal government are not united in presenting a clear policy agenda, and the media do us no favors by highlighting party infighting every chance they get," Jindal writes. "As a result, our brand is badly damaged."
Is this self-serving by Jindal? Well, of course it is. Jindal is an all-but-announced candidate for president in 2016 and is working hard to position himself as the Ideas Guy -- the honorary Newton Leroy Gingrich slot -- in the field. (Sidebar: Jindal's assertion that "we need to focus on substance more than personality" is rightly read as a slap against New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who used his force of personality to convincingly win a second term earlier this month.) By critiquing his party in Washington for being rudderless, Jindal gets a political double whammy: He casts himself as the adult in the room while distancing himself from a deeply unpopular party in Washington.
But, just because Jindal's op-ed is self-serving doesn't mean it's not right. It is. As we wrote over the weekend, Republicans would be making a major error if they believed that the problems surrounding Obamacare were the solution to the long term demographic, geographic and ideological problems that the 2012 presidential election laid plain. No matter how problematic the law is (and it has been very problematic so far) and no matter how damaging it has been to President Obama (and it has been very damaging thus far) Republicans can't hope that simply being the "not Obama" is enough to win the White House in 2016.
Signs of the brand problem that Jindal writes of are everywhere. In the new Washington Post-ABC News poll, more than four in ten people believe the tea party has too much influence over the Republican party. Forty three percent of respondents said the Republican party is "too conservative". Congressional approval is at a historically low ebb. House Republicans are still trying to climb out of the hole they dug for themselves during the government shutdown last month. The party is broadly seen as out-of-step with the country on social issues, not nearly diverse enough and out of ideas on the major policy issues of the day.
Jindal's right. His party is not anywhere close to where it needs to be to win a presidential election. Of course, it's 2013 not 2016, which means there is still plenty of time to correct that problem. But, saying the party needs to focus on policy not process is a nice thing to say and a harder thing to make happen. And, it's easy to say the GOP needs new policy answers; it's harder to come up with policy answers that appeal to voters who have left or are on their way out of the Republican coalition.