McCain Veepstakes: Bobby Jindal

Here’s an important pointer for anyone planning on interviewing Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal: Before sitting down with the 36-year-old Republican, clear your schedule all around the time of the interview, because you ask Jindal something, he will always get a detailed answer — and then some.

When we spoke recently, I reminded Jindal of how I last heard him when he was a U.S. House member two years ago, telling a luncheon audience about how people volunteering their services on relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina found they were thwarted by federal regulations. What particularly moved me, I told him, was his story of how a doctor from Pennsylvania was not permitted to treat patients in parts of Louisiana ravaged by the worst natural disaster in American history until he filled out several forms.

“They told him he literally had to mop floors, if you remember, at an airport that he was in where there were people dying.” Jindal told me, “There are thousands of these stories. I talked to a sheriff in an area where they had people with boats that were ready to go in the water and rescue people and they were turned away because they didn’t have proof of registration and insurance, they didn’t bring the right paperwork. The bureaucracy was just awful.”

The 36-year-old governor then proceeded to tell more sad sagas of Americans from other states who were trying to help Louisianans in their worst hour and kept running into a bureaucratic brick wall. Barely stopping for a breath, Jindal vividly contrasted the horror stories of dealing with government bureaucracy in attempts to help Katrina victims to successful relief efforts by non-governmental sources — Wal-Mart, Ford Motor and churches.

“They are so much more responsive, so much more nimble, they can respond so much more quickly than any government bureaucracy you’ll ever see,” said Jindal, who then went into a mini-tirade about how hard it was for local government to get assistance for rebuilding public schools because “instead of giving them that flexibility, [the federal bureaucrats] said we need for you to document every single one of these items that were destroyed.”

That’s the Jindal the picture. In an age of sound bites, Jindal gives you facts, figures, and details. And it works: Four months after becoming the highest-elected Indian American in the nation and the third Republican since Reconstruction to be elected governor of Louisiana, one poll shows the son of Indian immigrants getting high approval ratings from more than 70% of Pelican State voters.

That’s one reason talk of him as John McCain’s running mate is mounting. During a dinner in Indianapolis the night before the May 6 primary, my colleague Jamie Coomarasamy of the BBC observed that Jindal was featured on Page One of the Washington Times that day and had been boomed for Vice President by Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard in his column in the New York Times one day before.

“I’d say it’s Jindal’s week, isn’t it?” said Coomarasamy, echoing what scores of pundits were saying.

An American Saga

The story of the man who was named Piyush Jindal at birth but later insisted on being called “Bobby” (after the youngest brother on TV’s long-running “The Brady Bunch” series) is becoming as well-known to Republicans as the rise of Barack Obama is to Democrats. A graduate of Brown University and a Rhodes Scholar, the young Jindal was an intern with Rep. Jim McCrery (R.-La.); at 24, head of Louisiana’s state Health and Hospitals Department (which accounts for 40% of the state budget); at 27, He then served as executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare; at 28, president of the University of Louisiana System (with more than 80,000 students), at 30, and assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for planning and evaluation under George W. Bush.

Jindal narrowly missed election as governor of Louisiana in ’03, rebounded the following year to win a New Orleans-area U.S. House seat, and then captured the governorship with ease last year.

Of the first of two special sessions of the state legislature since Jindal became governor, he says “[We] passed several tough ethics laws trying to change [the state’s] practices from before where people profit by being in government. We passed some very strict rules that say elected officials can’t do business with the state. We also passed disclosure from lobbyists, putting all government spending online, getting rid of free football tickets, a cap for meals. We did several things that will restore people’s trust in the government. We’ve seen the studies that Steve Forbes and others have done saying what we could do to create jobs is to attack corruption.”

Of the second special session, Jindal proudly says “we got rid of a bunch of taxes like the ones on new equipment for utilities; we extended the state’s new market tax credit; which encourages renewal in these enterprise zones. It is interesting, at one point, right after the storms, the Democratic mayor of New Orleans came out and said to the federal government, why don’t you make the city a tax-free zone? If you do that, that will do more to stimulate the rebuilding than a whole lot of the money you’ all are sending down here. And nobody at the federal level pursued that idea. I think as conservatives, we have fundamental core beliefs of different policies and the role of government we think are better for people, for their quality of life.”

Meshing traditional conservative ideas such as tax cuts with newer concepts such as tax-free zones is an example of why, aside from his youth and moving life story, Jindal is increasingly talked of for national office.

At a time when even conservatives recoil from talk of abolishing some government agencies such as the Department of Education, Louisiana’s governor talks proudly of how he brought a Fortune 500 executive in to run the state Department of Labor and “in four months he has already proposed getting rid of his department. Why not come up with regional business councils, where the majority of the businesses are actual business owners, instead of the government’s going to the business owners and saying this is what we think you need in terms of training programs, and work force. They’re the customers, put them in charge of it.”

Whenever Jindal talks about shutting down a government agency such as the Department of Labor, he couples it, if he thinks it necessary with an immediate call for a positive alternative. In dismissing his state’s “charity hospitals”, a legacy of Huey Long’s governorship in the 1930s, as old and out-dated (“It doesn’t have the premiums, it doesn’t have the deductibles, it has very modest co-pays.”), Jindal makes a passionate pitch for “private coverage to involve health-savings accounts, purchasing pools, tax credits — and it’s going to involve changing the way that Medicaid and SCHIP operate.”

Like other conservatives in the Republican Governors Association, Gov. Jindal was critical of the $35 billion State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) bill passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress and vetoed by President Bush. But, he quickly adds, Republicans must come up with a more private-sector and business-oriented alternative to SCHIP, and to Medicaid as well. Louisiana, which spends more per capita on health-care than surrounding states, provides “a tremendous opportunity for change throughout the state, and it will help our business community, ” says Jindal.

So what does Jindal think of becoming the Republican vice presidential candidate with John McCain? Before posing the question, I noted that former Rep. Bob Livingston (R.-La.) had recently told me he hopes Jindal doesn’t become Vice President because it would put liberal Democratic Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. Brother of Sen. Mary Landrieu, into the governor’s mansion.

“It is very, very flattering,” Jindal says of the Veep talk, “But I’ve got the job that I want.
This is an historic opportunity to change our state. We won’t get a chance like this in our lifetimes again. I do not want to turn down something that I have not been offered. I have had several conversations with the senator and we have not talked about the vice-presidency,. I am very, very happy with the job that I have. I’ve got the job that I want. You can tell Bob that I am planning to run for re-election.”

By that election day in 2011, Jindal will be 39 — and still have plenty of time for national politics.