I have made no secret of my belief that from a purely substantive standpoint (politics aside — I make no endorsements), Rick Santorum is the class of this year’s Republican presidential field. But as a hypothetical, if one were to create from scratch a near-perfect presidential candidate, one might come close to creating Bobby Jindal, who just won re-election in Louisiana this past Saturday with a phenomenal two-thirds of the vote against nine (!) opponents.
To begin with, I commend to readers an excellent feature on him by Jim Geraghty, who credits Jindal with having “shone” in a “time of testing.”
Meanwhile, politically, here’s how I would describe it. In this contest, you would want somebody fairly youthful and energetic because Barack Obama’s youth otherwise remains an advantage. You would absolutely, positively want somebody who can beat Obama like a drum on the issue of health care — and there is no elected official in America, not even Paul Ryan, who knows health-care policy better than Jindal does. He was head of Louisiana’s health department at 25, where he almost single-handedly fixed the state’s horrendous Medicaid problems. He was executive director of Bill Clinton’s Medicare commission, headed by Louisiana Democratic U.S. Sen. John Breaux and California’s Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas, which garnered bipartisan support but fell victim to the politics of the Lewinsky era. He can explain “premium support” and market solutions better than anyone in the business, especially in a debate, where — unlike, perhaps, in a formal speech setting — Jindal absolutely sparkles.
You would want somebody acceptable to cultural conservatives (he’s solidly rightward on cultural issues) without the rhetoric or mannerisms that make some candidates scary to otherwise right-leaning independents who may be culturally a bit center-left (Yuppies, Bobos in Paradise, whatever you want to call them). You want somebody with a fiscal record Tea Partiers would absolutely love. (Try a rare “A” on CATO’s report card and, as Geraghty describes, a 26 percent overall cut in state spending.) You would want somebody with a good record of economic development who leads a state with better-than-average unemployment figures. You would want a record of good administrative management, and one with a spotless record on personal ethics success at pushing ethics reforms.
You would want, again, an accomplished debater. You would want somebody with at least some Washington experience (perhaps several years in Congress) but with a clearly executive background. You would want somebody of almost genius-level intelligence who nevertheless repeatedly has demonstrated a “common touch.”
You would, from a political standpoint (this should not matter, but it does), want somebody who’s not standard-issue WASP. Young voters, especially, really do think multiculturalism is a virtue. You would want somebody with some real fund-raising chops, to compete with the $700 million Obama will scare up. You would want somebody with a sunny disposition and a reputation as a problem-solver.
And, considering how dire things are likely to remain in this country through Election Day of 2012, you would want somebody who has been at his best in a crisis. Jindal has handled not one but three crises with remarkable aplomb: Hurricane Katrina, as a congressman who was almost the only public official who earned good reviews; Hurricane Gustav, as governor (discussed by Geraghty); and the BP oil spill, where he was Johnny-on-the… er, make that Bobby-on-the-spot throughout the ordeal, exuding a can-do spirit and a creative, problem-solving mien.
Every one of these descriptors fits Jindal precisely. He’s a leader who somehow maintains solid conservatism without seeming particularly partisan. He’s a governor who has overseen the almost total-takeover by Republicans of a once-purple state (all seven statewide offices and majorities in both legislative chambers are now GOP-held) without verbally bashing the other side. Oh, he can fight politically with the best of them — you must be tough to thrive in Louisiana’s infamous political swamps — but he often serves his revenge cold, as the ancient wisdom advises, and silently, outmaneuvering adversaries rather than bludgeoning them.
Critics on the right complain that Jindal is not great at returning phone calls, that his staff is absurdly arrogant, and that he has raised legislative caution to an art form rather than daring big, transformative initiatives. Nonetheless, the public probably doesn’t care much if political power players get frozen out while the governor mingles frequently with “ordinary” voters, and probably would rather see quietly effective managerial competence — even ruthlessly efficient, as the case may be — than to have their lives or their newscasts roiled by yet more political drama with nasty tinge.
Jindal already has endorsed Rick Perry for president. Party leaders still looking to recruit another candidate might want to consider convincing him to renege on that endorsement. This nomination battle is still volatile enough for one more candidate to blow into the race with hurricane force tailwinds.