Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal rode into the Republican National Committee retreat in Charlotte, North Carolina, ready to offer a dose of tough medicine for the Republican Party, which he now says “must stop being the stupid party.”
“The Republican Party does not need to change our principles,” he said in a keynote speech, “but we might need to change just about everything else we do.”
There’s a problem with Jindal’s prescription, however, rooted in an idea that Forrest Gump once articulated — “stupid is as stupid does.”
As the GOP enters a period of reassessment, it knows it desperately needs to reach out beyond its older white male conservative populist base. Jindal is an appealing symbol of that needed change — a young Southern governor who is also an Indian American and former Rhodes scholar.
The GOP’s problem in reaching out beyond its conservative base is not simply a matter of communication and tone. The problem is in the party’s policies.
But because Jindal needs to keep the conservative base in his corner to mount a widely expected 2016 presidential campaign, he is restrained from really dealing with the root of the problem.
Instead, his well-written speech — presented as a refutation of President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address — was incomplete and dominated by many of the straw-man arguments he decried.
Defensively, Jindal assured his audience that his federalist vision of modernizing the Republican Party did not mean “moderating” its policies in any way.
“I am not one of those who believe we should moderate, equivocate or otherwise abandon our principles,” Jindal said. “This badly disappoints many of the liberals in the national media, of course. For them, real change means: supporting abortion on demand without apology, abandoning traditional marriage between one man and one woman, embracing government growth as the key to American success, agreeing to higher taxes every year to pay for government expansion, and endorsing the enlightened policies of European socialism.”
The tragicomic caricature does not describe what Democrats believe or what a centrist Republican might want. But the markers Jindal puts down means he is backing social conservative positions such as opposition to same-sex marriage and the call for a constitutional ban on abortion that is codified in the party platform.
Many voters — especially members of the millennial generation — consider these positions at odds with libertarians’ professed belief in maximizing individual freedom, but the contradiction and resulting voter alienation is entirely sidestepped. Confronting it is politically inconvenient, if not impossible.
Not being the stupid party also means supporting science and the separation of church and state, at least to the extent that creationism is not taught in public schools. But Jindal has backed the teaching of creationism in Louisiana public schools in a pander to conservative populists. Physician, heal thyself.
When Jindal says, “We must not become the party of austerity. We must become the party of growth,” he is arguing for a positive frame for the conservative message. But he is not actually questioning conservatives’ call to cut federal spending and social programs dramatically, which could restrict growth and alienate efforts to appeal beyond the base. He’s just saying the GOP should present the glass as half full.
I’m all for reinventing government and reducing bureaucracy dramatically — as Jindal calls for — but part of “talking to Americans like adults” — involves talking about the real costs and consequences, not just reframing the debate.
Jindal rightly says, “We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. We’ve had enough of that.” He’s presumably referring to the self-destructed tea-evangelist Senate campaigns of Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin — which alienated women and centrist voters with the candidates’ tortured talk about rape, biology and abortion.
But the problem with those bizarre and offensive comments was rooted in the policies the Senate candidates were being asked to defend — namely, their faith-based opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape. Unless, that policy is addressed, the problem will remain. Silence on the subject doesn’t solving anything.
Likewise, correcting the overwhelmingly white complexion of the conservative base will require more than just talking to everyone as individuals and rejecting identity politics. It will require backing policies such as comprehensive immigration reform — as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have backed. Jindal stayed silent on the subject and substance.
There is a lot to admire in Jindal’s speech — first and foremost the courage it took to challenge his party in unvarnished terms so soon after a stinging election loss. He is right about the need to offer a compelling contrast rooted in radical simplification to decrease costs and increase efficiency. Jindal is correct in saying that Mitt Romney’s failure was in large part his inability to move beyond simply criticizing Obama and offer a detailed positive policy alternative. But that failure was rooted in the fact that much of current conservative policy is broadly unpopular, a problem only compounded when the party becomes more polarized and dominated by the far-right debating society.
The demonization of Obama beyond all reason and reality only adds to the credibility gap that conservatives are now confronting. Most leading national Democrats — whether it is Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton or John Kerry — may be decidedly center-left, but they are basically pragmatic progressives, not the kind of fuming anti-American statists many conservatives imagine. Most Main Street Americans understand this, and hard-core conservatives look a bit dotty for insisting their overheated vision is rooted in reality.
There’s one final contradiction between rhetoric and reality that’s worth confronting. Jindal spent a lot of time in his speech slamming the “barren concrete” of Washington and the job of “managing government.” But if Jindal runs for president — as seems increasingly likely — he’ll be running for the privilege of living in that barren concrete jungle and managing the federal government. That’s a basic part of the job description. Let’s be honest: Jindal doesn’t really hate the federal government; he wants to run it.
Jindal is courageous to call on his party to stop being “the stupid party.” But that slogan and his speech is a diagnosis of the problem, not a prescription for fixing it. Confronting the impulse to pander to social conservative populists is necessary to fix “the stupid party.” The problem is in the policy, not just political perception.