MOBILE, Ala. -- Probably no governor in the country has had as good a start to 2012 as Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, who orchestrated a triumphant romp through his state's legislature of the most sweepingly exciting education reforms any state has seen in 30 years. Jindal spoke Thursday in Mobile at a fundraiser for the Alabama Republican Party, providing a large dose of the infectious enthusiasm that has made him an unlikely but nearly unstoppable political power.
With a huge portion of the expected attendees held up in traffic by a bad wreck on a highway over Mobile Bay, organizers extended the time for the photo line with Jindal to give more people an opportunity to arrive. Jindal stood there patiently, thin as a wisp and smiling broad as Gomer Pyle, greeting person after person with an easy charm. "Very warm, very engaging," said local political veteran Rhodes Prince afterward. "He looks you right in the eye. Great smile."
When it came time for the speech, former congressman Jack Edwards, first elected in the Barry Goldwater southern sweep of 1964, introduced Jindal with the remarkable litany of the Louisianan's career path: Rhodes scholar; secretary of his state's Department of Health and Hospitals at age 25; president of the nine-campus, 80,000-student University of Louisiana system at age 28; assistant secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services at 30; congressman at 33; governor at 36; and re-elected last year in a 10-way race with a stunning 66 percent of the vote. Along the way, Jindal proved himself a master crisis-manager, receiving some of the only praise for any elected official in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and then acting as a creative-response dynamo in response to the BP oil spill.
A national audience might have trouble fathoming such a resumé for such a boyish figure who is eminently pleasant but devoid of any LBJ-like projection of power. After all, many Americans' biggest exposure to Jindal was his sing-song, widely panned delivery of the Republican response to Barack Obama's 2009 State of the Union address -- hardly an impressive calling card, although the speech's substance actually was better than its style.
But that sort of setting did not play to his strengths. Jindal isn't a pomp-and-circumstance, behind-a-podium, read-from-a-teleprompter speaker. In Mobile, in a fighter-jet-filled pavilion next to the battleship U.S.S. Alabama, microphone in hand as he stood and sometimes paced casually around a simple riser, Jindal was more in his element. No notes, no carefully scripted eloquence; just a torrent of words, full of facts and sense and a smiling good humor.
He gracefully hit the right notes with a nice mention of Alabama's (absent) Republican governor, Robert Bentley. He skillfully gutted Obama for a litany of broken promises -- but, as a remarkably pleasant assassin, sounded off in sorrow, rather than with the angry tones or scolding demeanor of, say, a Rick Santorum on a bad day. He laid out a six-point plan for a national energy policy, managing to make it sound thorough and simple at the same time, wonkish enough to impress, but populist and uncomplicated enough to be readily understandable by any audience. (More permits; allow fracking; approve the Keystone pipeline; stop over-regulation; reject cap-and-trade; stop the crony capitalism represented by Solyndra and instead go to lower, flatter taxes across the board. Oh -- and then, of course, the usual "all of the above" embrace of fuel sources from nuclear to wind to biodiesel, but without any special subsidies or advantages.)
He spent only a small time bragging about his own accomplishments in Louisiana -- budget down 26 percent, unemployment rate below the national average every month of his governorship, best bond rating for the state in years, elimination of nearly 10,000 unnecessary full-time government positions -- and then moved into a heartfelt paean to American opportunity and exceptionalism. He dinged the Occupy movement sweeping the country: "What they really are talking about is managing the slow decline of our country. That's not the America where I grew up!" And, while still managing to sound anything but nasty, he again blasted Obama: "the most liberal ideological president since Jimmy Carter was in the White House. The most incompetent president since Jimmy Carter was in the White House."
Jindal didn't elaborate on the latter point during his speech, but the first chapter of his book, Leadership and Crisis, paints a harshly unflattering portrait of a mean-spirited, self-absorbed, clueless Obama during the oil-spill crisis. Most Americans have already forgotten just how inept and counterproductive the Obama administration was during those months; Jindal laid it all out with impressive detail.
Somewhat surprisingly, Jindal barely mentioned his recent triumphs in education policy, but I asked him about them afterward. The first part of his package involved an astonishing expansion of school choice throughout Louisiana. Building on the much-vaunted success of New Orleans schools since virtually the entire local system went "charter" after Katrina, the new legislation dramatically increases the pathways to creation of charters statewide, and streamlines the charter application process. It also expands Jindal's earlier, somewhat voucher-like "Scholarships for Education Excellence Program" that lets students use public dollars to attend private schools. And it provides a dollar-for-dollar tax rebate for donations to "school tuition organizations" that provide scholarships.
"One of our school union leaders had come out and said that many poor parents don't have a clue about how to make educational choices for the children," Jindal told me. "To me, that is incredibly offensive, that bureaucratic, top-down, attitude. Who knows the child's needs better: the parents, or the elitist, bureaucratic system? A child's education should not be determined by his income or his zip code. We know that there are a lot of kids trapped in failing schools. We should allow the dollars to follow the children, not make the children try to follow the dollars."
The second part of this year's reforms involved a radical restructuring (and restricting) of teacher tenure. Tenure now will be awarded not based on longevity, but instead as a result of five years of "highly effective" ratings. Likewise, layoffs and compensation will be decided on merit as well, based on assessments of the performance of a teacher's students. Also (and in accordance with ideas pushed by national reformer Philip K. Howard), far more authority and responsibility, without bureaucratic hindrances, will be afforded superintendents and school principals.
"The idea," Jindal said, "is this: In the private sector, if you went to a business owner and said, 'We're going to make it almost impossible to fire your bad employees and reward your good ones,' that small-business owner wouldn't be able to stay in business for long. But understand this: We are indeed also rewarding those teachers who are doing a great job."
Indeed, the administration claims that it has increased overall education spending by more than 9 percent even while cutting the total state budget by 26 percent, and now has provided generous merit pay for good results. Reforms in Jindal's first term included a Teachers' Bill of Rights that reduced paperwork burdens and gave them more disciplinary authority within the classroom.
First-term results -- even before this year's reforms -- have been impressive. Graduation rates are up, dropout rates down, achievement scores up, test scores up, and Education Week rated Louisiana second in the nation this year for its standards and accountability.
"The status quo is just not acceptable," Jindal said.
All of which helps explain why Jindal is increasingly mentioned as a potential running mate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. And for good reason.
To be sure, there are some things Jindal could improve. His handshake should be firmer. Too many of his speech lines are clichés (e.g. his father talking about walking to school uphill both ways). Too many conservative activists in Louisiana say the Jindal administration does a poor job returning phone calls. Listen hard enough, and a number of other small complaints burble up.
Nonetheless, most of these criticisms amount to small potatoes. Jindal is a superb debater, deeply knowledgeable about public policy at both state and federal levels, an excellent crisis manager, a good-humored advocate, and an expert in health-care policy (and creative champion of solutions) in a year when, after the Supreme Court rules on Obamacare, health care could well be the campaign's single biggest issue.
The point here, though, is not to promote Jindal for veep. The point is to assess him as a still-rising star of the conservative movement. The verdict from everyone to whom I spoke on Thursday evening was that his speech was boffo -- at worst a solid B, perhaps as good as an A-minus, borderline straight-A. His personal friendliness is almost off the top end of the charts. And his policy successes in 17 years of appointive and elective public life are far more than merely considerable.
Best of all is that his wonkishness does not translate into a desire for wonks to solve all our problems. "What makes America so great," he said in his speech, "is not another government program."
Bobby Jindal is all about individual freedom and opportunity. His life story shows the magic of both.