Political Hay

How McCain Can Win the Base

An overlooked but rising Republican star would be his perfect vice-presidential choice.

By 3.14.08

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Even as the Democratic presidential contest seems to be morphing into Dr. Doolittle's mythical beast with a head at each end, the pushmi-pullyu, John McCain has the chance to make a leisurely choice of potential running mates. But he had better not wait too long.

The spectacle of a third of voters in the Republican primaries in Texas and Ohio voting for the doomed candidacy of Mike Huckabee suggests strongly that McCain still hasn't won over the base of the Republican Party. It's a question of trust, but verify. As Hillary Clinton says of Barack Obama, one speech does not make up for her experience as a housewife at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Nor can one speech by McCain at CPAC win over a disgruntled base of folks who may very well stay home, as they did for G.H.W. Bush the second time and for Bob Dole. The base is looking for action, not words.

That's why McCain's choice of vice presidential running mate can make or break his candidacy. The party's professional trunk-waving pachyderms and the beltway bozos who think that pragmatism will win the new day are already offering up a list of business-as-usual candidates. But pragmatism is not practical in the long run. There's Governor Whatshisname from one of those Ice Belt states that always seem to be ready to fall over the border into Canada. Then there's that other governor in Florida who, seizing the opportunity, endorsed McCain four days before the primary. Some are getting excited about Condoleezza Rice, who puts forward a pretty face even as she has done nothing but act as a front for the Foreign Service Corps establishment ever since she got the job.

No, this is the time for change, real change. This is a time for someone whom everybody knows to be the rising star of the GOP, the new governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal.

And what a governor! Sworn as Governor in January, after winning 54 percent of the vote in the open-field primary, Jindal immediately called a special session of the legislature and persuaded them to pass his 64-point agenda for ethics reform. They said ethics reform couldn't be done in Louisiana -- a state whose reputation as a cesspool is legendary -- but he did it in a two-week session. Now he's calling a second special session to pass the tax cuts necessary to jump-start the post-Katrina economy in his state.

DO SOME PEOPLE THINK that McCain is too old at 71? The Constitution does require a back-up, no matter how old the President. Jindal can balance the ticket. At 36, he has the accomplishments you would expect at 47. Obama, at 47, has the accomplishments you would expect at 36. Jindal more than meets the Constitutional age requirements if he were to succeed to the Presidency, and has more executive and legislative experience than the two Democrats combined. His nomination would convince the rising generation that there's hope for the young.

Do some think this is an election about experience? Jindal, who was elected to Rep. David Vitter's seat when Vitter ran for U.S. Senate in 2003, was re-elected for a second term with 88 percent of the vote. That's not enough experience? It's as much experience in Congress as Barack Obama has to show for his three years. Oh, and by the way, Jindal, in his last term, had an ACU rating of 100, with 96 for both terms. In addition he has consistently taken the No New Taxes pledge proposed by Americans for Tax Reform.

Maybe some think that this is going to be an election about health care? Jindal's the man. In 1991 he was a young Hill staffer working for U.S. Rep. Jim McCrery. One day McCrery asked him to look over some Medicare plans being proposed in committee. A couple of days later, he brought back to the boss a totally revised system that was so impressive McCrery introduced him to Louisiana Governor Murphy J. Foster Jr. A few years later, Jindal, at the age of 24, was appointed Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. He took hold of the state's Medicare program, which was running at a loss of $400 million, and in three years produced a surplus of $200 million. He later became chairman of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare. In 2001, he was nominated by President George W. Bush and approved by the U.S. Senate to be Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation of Health and Human Services. If Jindal gets a chance to debate Hillary Clinton, Hillary will be fumbling for her cue cards.

Is this going to be an election about education? Jindal is an expert at that too. Jindal graduated from high school at age 16, took a bachelor's degree at Brown University, and then got a Masters degree at New College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. After he cleaned up the Medicare mess in Louisiana, he was appointed in 1999 as President of the University of Louisiana System.

Maybe you think the central question in this election is going to be about immigration. Jindal knows all about that first hand. Jindal was born in Baton Rouge, La., of hard-working parents who emigrated from India. His father was one of nine children from a poor family in a small village in the Punjab. He could give a lot of advice to McCain. Jindal favors immigration -- legal immigration. He is strongly opposed to illegal immigration. As an addition to the white-bread McCain ticket, he would reach out to all people of color. It would be interesting to see him go head-to-head with Barack Obama in an immigration debate.

But what about the "values voters"? Will they cotton up to the son of immigrants? It doesn't seem to have prevented him from rolling up huge majorities in Louisiana. Born a Hindu, Jindal converted to Roman Catholicism in high school and has remained a devoted practitioner of his faith. He campaigns four-square in favor of the human rights of unborn children. He is opposed to embryonic stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage. In the gubernatorial election, he visited scores of pentecostal and evangelical churches and won them over with his testimony. As a result, he had majorities or pluralities in 60 of the 64 Louisiana districts. In the Louisiana open primary system, Republican and Democrat candidates all appear on the same ballot, and all compete with each other. If no one gets 50 percent, a run-off is held. That's why Jindal's 54 percent win on the first ballot was so significant.

THE FINAL QUESTION that remains is, what does he know about terrorism? Well, when he was a congressman from the first district of Louisiana he voted against a $6.5 billion aid bill for post-Katrina restoration because it included the Democrats' poison-pill for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

Even beyond that, he surely could not be ignorant of his own ethnic heritage, even though he was born in the United States. India today is the largest Hindu state in the world; but in terms of population it is the second-largest Muslim state in the world (only Indonesia is larger). Despite continuing religious and demographic tensions, India has developed stable democratic institutions. But Pakistan is a different case. The Punjab is a vast region that stretches from Chandigarh in India on the east to the mountainous Northwest territories and Waziristan districts of Pakistan. When the British granted independence in 1947, the Punjab was partitioned with approximately one-third in India, and the other two-thirds in what was to have been the majority-Muslim state of Pakistan. Within weeks the Muslims began a genocidal jihad against the Hindus and Sikhs to drive them out of Pakistan. Thousands of non-Muslims were slaughtered, hundreds of villages burned. Millions of non-Muslims streamed out of Pakistan on foot, on trucks, on trains, and on the top of trains. Millions of Muslims streamed in. In all, 20 million people were dislocated. Pakistan was no longer Muslim majority; it was virtually all Muslim. This lasting scar has been the cause of three wars between India and Pakistan, and a nuclear arms race on each side.

It is not surprising that Pakistan became the incubator of the Taliban, nor that Waziristan now seems to be the home of Osama bin Laden and the remnant of al-Qaeda. Nor is it surprising that al-Qaeda forces, after basic training, were sent to Kashmir to get battle-hardened. Virtually all Indian Punjabis can recite these horrors chapter and verse. My guess is that, if Jindal were elected Vice President, he would not need to get any CIA briefings about Pakistan and Waziristan, or the nature of the terrorist threat.

If McCain is to win, he needs not just numbers but enthusiasm. The Democratic primaries consistently have brought out twice as many voters as the Republican primaries. Jindal has already demonstrated that he can get voters enthused. The old rules that chose vice presidents for sectional balance or the ability to win big states are out of date. Moreover, Jindal record on issues and accomplishment can easily satisfy the base of the Republican Party. He rises above provincialism. His ethnicity will appeal not only to minorities at home who feel that they have been ignored, but will reach out across oceans to project the American dream to the world. Jindal has crammed a lot of legislative and executive experience into a career that is just beginning. If McCain wants to prove to conservatives that he means business and not empty words, he could not do better than to chose Jindal. Soon.

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