Americans on Tuesday night had the chance to see in Governor Bobby Jindal what Louisianans have marveled at for 13 years now, ever since he became at 24 the director of the state health department: a bright, sincere, earnest, capable, conservative reformer with no apparent sharp edges. It’s almost impossible not to like him — but the question is whether he’s fully ready to lead.
Everybody knows that giving the minority party’s “response” to a major presidential address is a tough, tough task. There’s no pomp, no audience, and no presidential aura. The worst of those is the lack of audience: Unless you are Ronald Reagan, it is infinitely harder to make connection with a TV lens than it is to let the TV lens show you making a connection to a live audience who give visual feedback to the speaker.
Jindal, then, can hardly be blamed for not having yet mastered the task. Especially early in his address, his delivery was painfully sing-songish, like that of a high school senior running for class president. He needs to learn to break up the meter of his delivery, like real people talk in conversations. He also took too long talking about himself rather than about the needs of the people of this nation. And his theme-setting story about how it was the stocked shelves of a grocery store that moved his father to say that “Americans can do anything”… well, it was hokey, in a way that the Orwellian but masterly Barack Obama almost never appears.
But what Jindal lacked in “presence,” he made up for with transparent believability. His very boyishness eliminates any sense that his hokeyness contains any cynicism — and his principles of self-reliance rather than reliance on big government are principles that still resonate with the American soul. He was especially good when he (in slightly over-broad strokes) made simple descriptions of what is entailed by liberal Obama approaches: What the stimulus will do, he said, is “grow the government, increase our taxes down the line, and saddle our children with debt.” Conversely, he aptly described conservative approaches. On health care, he advertised this “simple principle. We stand for universal access. What we oppose is universal government health care.”
Obama gave us sweeping vision, breathtaking in its scope (and in its socialistic abandonment of all sorts of basic American tenets of limited government), combined with well-disguised Orwellian tricks of language that falsely rooted his vision in age-old American values. In response, Jindal tried to give us a return to common sense:
“Who among us would ask our children for a loan, so we could spend money we do not have, on things we do not need? That is precisely what the Democrats in Congress just did. It’s irresponsible. And it’s no way to strengthen our economy, create jobs, or build a prosperous future for our children.…”
Nobody who watched will say that Jindal isn’t a man with a future. But few who watched would say that his national future is now.
Louisianans already are finding that Jindal is a good governor, but less than a fully realized one. His vaunted ethics reforms were good, but contained some deleterious loopholes. He claimed to have cut the number of state employees, but the total actually has grown (slightly) so far, with high-salaried employees seeing an especially notable increase. He claimed to cut taxes, but the truth is that he ran to get ahead of a parade that already started without him.
It’s not that Jindal has been a spendthrift liberal or deliberately misleading. But being governor requires that one establish mastery over a state legislature that often refuses to be mastered, and it involves real-world political management skills that take time to develop. (And political management skills are of a different order than mere bureaucratic skills, which Jindal already has proved in past jobs in abundance.)
On all of these fronts, Jindal is decently talented — far, far from inept — but still less than significantly experienced. His utterly superb on-the-fly management of two major hurricane responses — one as a congressman who clearly outperformed the mayor and then-governor, the other one as governor himself — shows a quick mind, a strong will, a can-do spirit, a good heart, and a gut-level competence. But sometimes, counterintuitively, it is the hard, day-to-day management of inside politics that is more difficult to excel at than is crisis management where people respond by necessity to the decisive orders of somebody willing to take control and responsibility.
All of which is to say that Jindal is still a work in progress. A very good work, but still in progress nonetheless. And so he proved in his mini-speech tonight, in which he clearly did not live up to his “superstar” billing, but where he nevertheless provided some necessary correctives to Obama’s largesse, along with some hope for the future.
(Mr. Hillyer, a Louisiana native, has followed Bobby Jindal’s career since 1991.)