In a major address to the Republican National Committee, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal delivered what many assume to be his kickoff for the 2016 presidential nomination, focusing on messaging more than policy issues. “We’ve got to stop being the ‘Stupid Party.’ It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults,” Jindal said, as quoted by the Associated Press. “We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. I’m here to say we’ve had enough of that.”
Actually, the original formulation, generally credited to the late Sam Francis, is that Washington has two parties, the Stupid Party and the Evil Party. It was meant as a general condemnation of the D.C. system, not just a slam on Republicans. Most reading his comment about Republicans who “damaged the brand” would think immediately of Senate candidates Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana, both of whom self-destructed in the midst of very winnable races. While Akin blew himself up by talking like an idiot, Mourdock got in trouble for talking like an adult – he gave a serious, heartfelt answer to a serious question about allowing abortion for the victims of sexual assault. Avoiding such questions might be smart politics, but it’s not intellectually consistent with treating the electorate like adults. And of course, the Democrats are getting along just fine while treating the electorate as infants, both in their campaign rhetoric and policy proposals.
Based on the balance of his comments, what Jindal is really talking about is connecting with voters at a basic, practical, common-sense level. The task requires focused, politically skilled candidates who can avoid falling for rhetorical booby traps and silly distractions – the common failing of high-profile defeated Republicans in 2012, including the party’s presidential contender.
???Washington has spent a generation trying to bribe our citizens and extort our states,??? Jindal said. ???As Republicans, it???s time to quit arguing around the edges of that corrupt system.???
???We must quit ???big,?????? he said. ???We are not the party of big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes or big anything. We must not be the party that simply protects the well off so they can keep their toys ??? We are the party whose ideas will help the middle class, and help more folks join the middle class.???
???We believe in planting the seeds of growth in the fertile soil of your economy, where you live, where you work, invest, and dream, not in the barren concrete of Washington,??? he said. ???If it???s worth doing, block grant it to the states. If it???s something you don???t trust the states to do, then maybe Washington shouldn???t do it at all. We believe solving problems closer to home should always be our first, not last, option.???
Jindal worries that the GOP is becoming a party obsessed with austerity more than growth and focused too much on trying to ???manage??? government better than Democrats. He called the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling and Joe Biden???s gun control task force ???sideshow traps??? that distract from bigger issues.
???We think if we can just unite behind a proposal to cut the deficit and debt, if we can just put together a spreadsheet and a power point and a TV ad, all will be well,??? he said. ???It???s a terrible debate. It???s a debate fought entirely on our opponents??? terms. If our vision is not bigger than that, we do not deserve to win”
There are a lot of ideas packed into those few passages, and they don’t rest entirely comfortably against one another. Jindal makes a killer point when he discusses the inherent corruption of Big Government, which has “spent a generation trying to bribe our citizens and extort our states.” Republicans should make a bigger deal about that. It’s not as though Mitt Romney never mentioned outrages like Solyndra during his campaign, but he didn’t build it into a potent narrative theme that the media would be obliged to discuss. That takes repetition, and illumination through the addition of further issues and examples, decorating the core issue like Christmas tree lights. Federal bullying of state governments and private industry, a topic Jindal is very knowledgeable about, would make good further examples of inherent corruption.
He would also do well to connect Big Government to Big Business, including Big Labor, which has long been one of Uncle Sam’s favorite big businesses. These things all merge together at the highest levels. Liberal populism involves obscuring those connections; conservative populism should highlight them.
But it’s also worth bearing in mind that Big Business conveys benefits that middle-class people very much appreciate. There is great value in economies of scale. Our daily lives are defined by goods and services that only titanic national and international companies could possibly research or manufacture. Wal-Mart got huge because being huge allowed them to offer amazingly low prices to consumers. No small business could design, construct, and market the iPad. The kind of intelligent discourse Jindal advocates would include a distinction between “big” and “too big,” and “too big” usually involves a good deal of meddling from the largest “investor,” employer, and market manipulator ever to walk the Earth.
Jindal’s advice for including a deep appreciation of state government in conservative populist rhetoric is excellent. Of course, he’s a governor, so it’s no surprise he would see it that way. Among the biggest political stories of the next few years will be the continuing triumph of governors like Jindal, Rick Perry of Texas, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin against the prevailing tide of left-wing irresponsibility. Perry throws down with Washington on a regular basis. Walker is tallying up a budget surplus in a state Democrats ran into the ground, and talking about pro-growth tax cuts. Individuals and businesses are voting with their feet. That’s the kind of vote you don’t get to cast, when Washington controls everything.
How does all of that jibe with Jindal’s advice to avoid dreary talk of “austerity?” The impending fiscal collapse of Washington is a crucial issue. It is impossible to respect the intelligence, or the interests, of the middle class without talking about debt control, and only a complete fool believes that doesn’t involve big spending cuts. Spending doesn’t just make the numbers on the national-debt pinball machine ring up; it expands government control and reduces the size of the private sector. That would be true even if the money wasn’t borrowed.
Perhaps there lies the key to linking Jindal’s call to populism with the great and difficult issue of our age: instead of donning green eyeshades and crusading against the deficit itself, Republicans should talk about how every component of the deficit is bad in and of itself. Washington’s irresponsibility can be directly connected to the lives of average Americans in many ways, from slow growth and unemployment to the growing horror of government dependency.
Most of the public has a vague unease about the notion of Washington spending 40 percent more than it takes in… but they suppress that unease and vote for the big spenders because they think no one is really “paying” for all the “free” stuff. (They don’t think tax increases on super-rich people involve any “pain,” any more than a “middle-class” American suffers when he dumps his pocket change into a charity jar at the supermarket checkout line.) It’s not enough to warn of future disaster, not when the statists promise they can hold off the day of reckoning forever. Republicans need to talk more about how spending and borrowing are hurting America right now.
And as for that day of reckoning, they can just point to the fiscal-cliff drama and note that when Democrats bother to discuss the deficit, they always and invariably portray it as past obligations that we have no choice but to pay, by letting Washington raise our taxes. Today’s deficit-funded free lollipop is tomorrow’s irresistible demand for tax increases. We’re not accepting gifts from our benevolent ruling class; we’re measuring and cutting our own chains.
Jindal was directly asked if he was preparing for a 2016 run. He replied that “any Republican that’s thinking about talking about running for president needs to get his head examined. We’ve got a lot of work to do.” He’s right about the “talking” part, but not about the “thinking” part. One of the most important lessons to take from the 2012 race is that the candidate who plans and prepares his run early has nearly insurmountable advantages in the primary. If Jindal wants a shot at changing the Evil Party, as well as the Stupid Party, there is no time to waste.