This article appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
LOUISIANA’S U.S. REP. BOB LIVINGSTON, then the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Jim McCrery, a rising star on the Ways and Means Committee, were meeting in McCrery’s office for hours one day in 1996 with some officials from the Congressional Budget Office. U.S. Sen. John Breaux and several other Louisiana congressmen also were keeping tabs on the meeting in person or through staff. They were all desperately working to help Louisiana avoid a major budget crisis by convincing CBO that it should “score” a proposal for reforming the state’s Medicaid system as being “revenue neutral,” and thus able to be added to an appropriations bill without violating budget rules.
But the person doing most of the talking, via speakerphone from Baton Rouge, was then-25-year-old Bobby Jindal, the wunderkind who was serving his first year as secretary of the massive Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH). The plan at issue was his own. It basically amounted to having the feds pay more to Louisiana for Medicaid for one more year than would otherwise be the case — thus buying time for the state to reform its system to comply with new federal rules — in return for Louisiana receiving less in the subsequent years. If the plan failed to pass muster, the state budget would have a hole busted in it so wide that the necessary cuts would be not just draconian but absolutely devastating even by the most fiscally conservative of reckonings.
But with all the high-powered people in attendance, the young Jindal “more or less took over the meeting,” said longtime Livingston aide Paul Cambon. “Bobby was doing the yeoman’s talking on this one….I thought he was incredible….He was explaining to CBO how to score this stuff, all the ins and outs of Medicaid and how it worked….He showed this grasp of details of a complex proposal and could explain it in a way that made sense. It’s a great talent.”
In the end, the CBO officials finally acknowledged that the Jindal plan could be scored the way Jindal proposed. In turn, Jindal held up his end of the bargain by making Louisiana’s Medicaid reforms work. He cut fraud in the program and turned about a billion-dollar deficit into a surplus, thus establishing a state-wide reputation as a can-do reformer and financial wiz.
The same personal characteristics apparent in that speakerphone meeting — boldness, self-assurance, creativity, brains, and persistence, plus an unwavering devotion to conservative principle — have made now-U.S. Rep. Jindal, still just 36, one of the fastest rising stars in the national conservative movement and an overwhelming favorite to be elected governor of Louisiana this fall.
JINDAL’S STATEWIDE APPROVAL RATINGS are consistently in the 60s. The two most dangerous potential Democratic opponents, Breaux and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, declined to enter the race. As of early May, Jindal (basically rhymes with “spindle”) had some $5 million in his campaign coffers. And he already has a resume that would be impressive for somebody twice his age.
The son of immigrants from India to Baton Rouge, Jindal got his start in government-related work with two congressional internships in the summer of 1991, first with McCrery and then with Livingston. While with McCrery, he volunteered to write an original proposal applying McCrery’s free-market principles to the Medicare mess — and blew McCrery away with its quality. McCrery soon began using Jindal’s ideas in his speeches.
Jindal had just graduated that summer from Brown University and was en route to a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. He followed that up with a private sector post for a health-care consulting firm, and already had been accepted to both the medical and law schools of both Harvard and Yale when public policy again attracted his attention. He briefly met former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer and then-state Treasurer Mary Landrieu, the two front-runners for governor in 1995, and took perhaps more seriously than either one of them intended their respective invitations to give them a proposal to solve the state’s Medicaid crisis.
Again, the product was superb — and it somehow made its way to aides for then-state Sen. Mike Foster, who came from nowhere to win the governor’s race that fall. With heavy lobbying from both Livingston and McCrery, Foster began considering Jindal for a spot at DHH. But Jindal said he wasn’t interested in the number two spot in the department, and went back to his private sector job. Another call came: Would he go meet with the governor-elect in person? The meeting went well. Foster gave him the job, and Jindal succeeded in reforming the Medicaid program.
From there he went on to serve as executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare (co-chaired by Breaux), president of the University of Louisiana System, and assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. By 2003, Foster’s two terms were ending, and Jindal began a long-shot bid for governor. Several other high-profile Republicans were in the race, and Jindal’s name ID and poll numbers were both fairly low, but Foster and Livingston both decided to endorse him.
“I liked him, number one,” Livingston explained this spring. “I had become convinced that he really was extraordinarily bright and had proven himself to be extraordinarily capable….He just had proven that despite his youth that he could do just about any job assigned to him. I guess I wasn’t thinking politically. I just was convinced that he had incredible abilities and could lead Louisiana forward….I think I made the right choice.”
Jindal climbed through the large field and actually led the polls with a week remaining. But in the last week he refused to “go negative” on opponent Kathleen Blanco while she unleashed an attack on his record and while a seemingly organized effort highlighted his slightly dark skin color. Blanco won with 52 percent of the ballots.
“I think it was entirely racial,” said Lanny Keller, a 30-year veteran of Louisiana’s political wars and now a centrist editorial writer for the daily Baton Rouge Advocate. “You can look at very Republican parishes [by voting patterns, not by registration] where Bobby’s margins were under that of previous Republican candidates, sometimes by substantial margins.”
But Jindal recovered the next year to win Livingston’s old congressional seat with an astonishing 78 percent of the vote. Obviously, Jindal had completed the journey from pure policy wonk to extraordinarily successful politician — not a common occurrence.
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