I met Bobby Jindal 12 years ago. He was running for Louisiana governor against Kathleen Blanco. At 32, he was one of the most impressive candidates for any office that I had ever met. (I worked at Roll Call newspaper then and got to meet and interview lots and lots of candidates.)
Rhodes Scholar. Head of Louisiana's Department of Health and Human Services in his early 20s. Executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare. He had it all.
Jindal lost that race but quickly won a special election to the House the following year. By 2007, he was back in Louisiana — this time winning in a romp to become the state's governor at age 36. He was easily reelected in 2011 — and quickly began positioning himself for a near-inevitable presidential candidacy in 2016.
In the long run-up to his eventual bid, Jindal came through Washington and we got together for a background conversation about his plans. He came across the same way I remembered him from the early 2000s: a guy with real policy chops and, unlike many policy-oriented elected officials, a nuanced understanding of politics — up to and including how he planned to distinguish himself in the 2016 field.
Jindal was going to be the fresh face with the revolutionary conservative ideas in places areas such as health care. It made sense to me. The "ideas guy" is a real slot in the modern GOP primary process — from Steve Forbes through Newt Gingrich. And, at 44 and an Indian American to boot, Jindal very much represented the new face Republicans wanted — and needed — to put forward in 2016.
"We've got to stop being the stupid party," Jindal said at a major GOP gathering in 2013. "It's time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults. We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. I'm here to say we've had enough of that."
The presidential campaign Jindal actually ran, which ended Tuesday, was the opposite of the one I — and lots and lots of other political types — thought he would: It was a careening pander-fest in which Jindal chased news cycles relentlessly by seemingly trying to make the most outlandish and over-the-top statement possible to stand out.
Case in point: In the wake of the school shooting at a community college in Oregon last month, Jindal took to his Web site to write an angry screed about the "deep and serious cultural decay in our society." Jindal's goal was obvious: Appeal to social conservatives who do believe strongly that the fraying of our culture is to blame for events like these mass shootings. But, his rant — and that's what it was — was entirely transparent, a pol tossing the reddest of red meat to the crowd in hopes that it would make them like him.
Jindal's entire presidential campaign felt like one big attempt to go further than any other candidate would on contentious issues — from school shootings to religious liberties to Hillary Clinton — to get attention in a field where he (and all of the other second- and third-tier candidates) were being drowned out by the rise of celebrity/politician Donald Trump. National Journal branded Jindal "the clickbait candidate" for his attempts to do anything — and everything — just to get people to look at him.
That Jindal never had a chance. He wasn't — and isn't — the funniest candidate (Trump or Chris Christie) or the most charismatic (Trump or Marco Rubio). Or the most socially conservative (Ben Carson or Rick Santorum). Or the one best liked in his home state (John Kasich).
Look, even if Jindal ran as the wonky, fresh-faced guy I met 12 years ago, I'm not sure he would have ever broken through in this race. Trump's presence complicated (and complicates) the calculus for every other candidate. But, at least he could have run a race that had the potential to break through, which was never a real possibility after he chose to become the I-will-say-anything candidate.
Here are Jindal's two saving graces: 1) He's only 44 years old and 2) people have very short memories. Add it up and it's uniquely possible that in four or eight years — Jindal will only be in his early 50s in 2024 — he could run again for president.
Let's just hope that if he does run again, it's as a policy guy offering real ideas and promising to bring the party into its future. That Bobby Jindal is interesting. The 2016 version just wasn't.