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Hope Floats on the Bayou

In post-Katrina Louisiana, it's Bobby Jindal to the rescue.

By 8.22.07

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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.

"He has a million friends," Keller says. "He stays in touch with people. His intelligence attracts people. He is sharp; he generally has interesting things to say.

"In a go along/get along world, he is distinctively different, because he is intense about his goals and his ideas. There is a contrast between his image as a technocrat and the fact that he is actually quite a warm guy....He is genuine with people. I think there is a sharp distinction between people who know him reasonably well and like him a lot, and those who don't know him as well and see him only as the image...of 11-point plans and ideas to fix things."

McCrery, who has supported him every step of the way, elaborated: "Bobby has the most important quality to be successful as a political candidate: He has that fire in the belly. He really wants to serve. He presents the sense that he can make things better for people by serving in public office."

IN PERSON, THOUGH, WHAT FIRST STRIKES a visitor is less a fire than an almost irrepressible enthusiasm. Any question is answered with a torrent of words, rapid fire -- almost frustratingly so for an interviewer who wants to discuss a long list of topics. But what emerges is so Chevrolet-and-applie-pie-ish as to seem almost hokey, except that Jindal's sincerity is so palpable as to make the conversation leave hokey behind and at least border on the inspirational.

For example: How did he get into discussing health care with McCrery?

"I was doing an honors thesis at the time on transmembranes, on the stochiometry of energy lost in the cellular membrane. We were looking in brain stem cells, we were looking in the fluid there to see if the sodium potassium worked there the same way as it did in the rest of the body...."

Not until several minutes later can the interviewer get to ask how Jindal moved from medicine to an interest in government.

"You have to understand that my parents came to Louisiana and my mom was a student at LSU when she had me...and the first seven years of my life we lived in student housing. But what we learned at home was two lessons, one the importance of getting a good education and working hard, that if you did that there was no limit to what you could accomplish in America, and secondly day after day my dad was drilling into my head how lucky we were to have the opportunities around us. Not everybody in the world had the freedoms that we did...so when it came to politics and public policy I was very much attracted by the conservative philosophy that says let's not have the government smother the individual in this, let's not micromanage, let's not excessively tax, let's not confiscate people's private property rights, let's not in other words create disincentives when the best thing that we can do for people is give them the opportunity to work and if you do that you give them a tremendous gift...."

And on goes the gusher of words, through the explanation of how his medical studies convinced him that bureaucrats shouldn't run health care, through the explanation that in the Louisiana of flamboyantly corrupt Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards it was the Republican Party that represented reform and transparency of government -- and how, at the national level, he was inspired by the leadership, principles, and optimism of Ronald Reagan. Jindal also pays homage to McCrery, too, as an excellent example of conviction and principle... and, well, by the time that is finished, the interviewer is almost afraid to ask about his intellectual influences (Aristotle, Pliny, Augustine, Cardinal John Henry Newman). Almost, but not quite, because despite the lack of concision, Jindal is so engaging and pleasant and, yes, interesting throughout.

BUT THE REAL KEY TO JINDAL is not the energy of his conversation, but the energy and effectiveness of his performance. What made him a virtual folk hero in Louisiana was Jindal's response to Hurricane Katrina, from which crisis he was probably the only elected official to emerge with his reputation actually enhanced. By widespread agreement, Jindal and his staff are credited with responding to the storm in a superb manner, by organizing or facilitating aid of all sorts, by being accessible, by cutting through red tape (or just ignoring it) with alacrity and skill.

Characteristically, Jindal deflects much of the credit. "I had people in my office who lost everything they owned and their first reaction was to help other people. They didn't view themselves as victims; their immediate response was, all right, we have to get on the phone to help."

Jindal tells of a moment at the state's emergency response headquarters in the first several hours when nothing constructive seemed to be happening. The torrent of words comes again: "I remember looking at my chief of staff and we had the same thoughts, that there was no point in being here, it didn't feel like enough decisions were being made, so... we got in our vehicles and we started driving throughout every point we could get to, to see what we could bring, what do they need..."

They helicoptered to devastated St. Bernard Parish and found the sheriff: "They were still rescuing people out of the water; he went through the list: We need ammunition, we need cars, we need food, we need everything... We called up people we knew at Ford Motor Company and other motor companies; we got them to donate dozens of vehicles we could use for search and rescue. There was a hospital on the north shore [of Lake Pontchartrain] that was running low on medicines and couldn't get through the bureaucracy to get the medicines they needed so we got a guy in Michigan we knew to donate a plane and a helicopter and we got a guy in Shreveport to donate the medicines...."

Stories around Louisiana are legion about how Jindal's staff was everywhere, helping everybody, bypassing the bureaucrats, getting the job done.

"The one thing I want to emphasize," he said, "is the tremendous generosity of others because, while there were a lot of things we were able to facilitate, just to be clear that there were so many people [churches, non-profits, individual volunteers and donors, the Coast Guard].... There are thousands of untold stories, of American heroes that we don't get to hear about."

IT IS NO WONDER that conservatives are rooting for Bobby Jindal. The American Conservative Union gave him a perfect 100 rating in 2005; the liberal Americans for Democratic Action just a 10. National Right to Life gave him a 100, the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council 96, the National Federation of Independent Business 100, the Family Research Council 92 percent. But he supports working men and women, as is evidenced by support from some of the less ideological labor unions (International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, 75 percent).

"He gets it," said McCrery of his one-time intern. "He understands why our philosophy is the right one if you want to maximize the opportunities for the greatest number of people in our society to be successful."

It doesn't take a congressional budget analyst to know how to score the value of those convictions.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.