Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is a bit of a conundrum.
He is a conservative who graduated from Brown University, a bastion of political correctness and the political left.
A Rhodes scholar who criticized those in his own party for expressing views he called “offensive and bizarre,” Jindal is spending plenty of time talking about his religious beliefs and political views, which to some are not very different from those he criticized.
He was a leading advocate of Common Core initially, but has turned strongly against the initiative, arguing it has been taken over by Washington, D.C., liberals.
And he is a 43-year-old Indian-American policy wonk with terrific credentials in a party that desperately needs youth and diversity, yet he is increasingly regarded as only a second-tier hopeful in the Republican presidential race.
Are we all underestimating Jindal, or has he faded before the race for 2016 has even begun?
Jindal’s career trajectory has been nothing short of meteoric. After college, he turned down acceptances from Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School in favor of a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford.
In his mid-20s, he ran Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals. He then became executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, followed by an appointment as president of the University of Louisiana system. At 30, Jindal was appointed by President George W. Bush to be assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for Planning and Evaluation.
After losing a 2003 bid for governor of Louisiana, Jindal won two terms in Congress, and in 2007 he was elected governor. He was re-elected easily four years later. And now, Jindal is preparing to enter the race for his party’s presidential nomination, probably sometime in June.
Republicans close to the governor repeat the same words and phrases when they describe him: intelligent, courageous, conservative, a policy wonk and a leader.
They talk about his success cutting spending and delivering school choice in Louisiana, and they argue he has appeal to a wide array of Republicans — from people of faith, free market conservatives and those in the tea party to voters who want a nominee with executive experience, a quick mind and excellent debate skills.
But Jindal’s path to a presidential race hasn’t been entirely smooth.
Some remember him only for his awkward response to President Barack Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address (even though it is not representative of his skill as a communicator), and while his allies talk about his accomplishments as governor, Louisiana voters are far from unanimous about his job performance.
The drop in oil and gas prices has hit the state’s economy hard, and the Louisiana Legislature currently is trying to deal with a $1.6 billion budget shortfall. More generally, Jindal’s budgetary decisions over the years have drawn plenty of criticism, even from within his own party.
In addition, some of Louisiana’s rankings on key measures of success — last in median household income in 2013, third worst infant mortality rate, and 46th in state unemployment rate (preliminary March 2015 data) — offer ammunition to his opponents.
On one level, Jindal should have broad appeal within the GOP. He is conservative but analytic, and his credentials suggest real policy savvy and a seriousness that goes beyond mere political ambition.
But so far, the Louisiana governor has spent a lot of time talking about religious themes — his personal beliefs on gay rights and religious freedom. While many GOP presidential hopefuls were attending the Iowa Freedom Summit, Jindal was headlining a large prayer rally in Louisiana.
Allies argue Jindal has always talked about how he became a Christian, and they insist his personal testimony helps him connect with evangelical and conservative voters. But even if that is true, it hardly contradicts the developing assessment that he is pigeonholing himself as the candidate of social issue and religious conservatives.
Of course, Jindal has talked about other themes and issues, including terrorism and health care, and in the months ahead he may avoid being marginalized as another Ben Carson or Ted Cruz or — gasp — Michele Bachmann. But liberal critics have already started to paint him as a religious zealot, and once reporters settle on a narrative about the Louisiana governor, he may find it difficult to recast his image.
Even with that danger, it’s a mistake to overlook, or dismiss, Jindal so early in the process.
In 2012, Rick Santorum “won” the Iowa caucuses with just less than 30 percent of the vote, and that was with six serious contenders in the contest. The number of credible candidates playing in Iowa next year could be double that, which could mean getting only 18 to 20 percent of the vote could be enough to win the 2016 caucuses.
The governor’s supporters argue retail politics is one of his great strengths, and they promise that will be a huge asset as he woos attendees of the Iowa caucuses. They acknowledge he is unknown in the state right now, and they see that as a great opportunity.
They better be right. Jindal must do well — very well — in the caucuses if he is going to have a lengthy run in the Republican race.
If he finishes back in the pack, it will mean other conservatives have bested him, depriving him of the momentum (and additional resources) he needs to develop into a top-tier contender.
On the other hand, if he generates excitement once he hits the stump in Iowa and finishes in the top two or three in the caucuses, the Brown grad and Rhodes Scholar could become somebody to reckon with.
For Jindal, it’s all about Iowa.