Bobby Jindal is forgotten but not gone. He followed the surest path of all to lose the attention of the national media. More than a year ago, he announced he wouldn’t run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Except for a spate of news coverage last year when, as governor of Louisiana, he had to cope with the BP oil spill, Jindal all but vanished from the national political scene.
Now he’s reemerging, and for good reason. He has a success story to tell or for others to tell for him. In October, he was reelected governor with the largest percentage (66 percent) since Louisiana’s open primary system began in 1975. Republicans, thanks in large part to Jindal, now control both houses of the legislature and all 7 nonfederal statewide offices. Jindal-backed reformers have 10 of the 11 seats on the state school board. At 40, Jindal is the most powerful political leader in Louisiana since Huey Long in the early 1930s.
Jindal’s future? He’s immersed himself in state issues—particularly education reform and jobs—though he wasn’t shy about criticizing President Obama for relying on bureaucrats in Washington to deal with the oil spill. Jindal is ambitious, he’ll be chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 2014, and one way or another, he’s bound to become a player in national politics when he’s term-limited as governor in four years.
Striking as they are, his political achievements are less impressive than his policy successes. The records of the three governors seeking the GOP presidential nomination—two former (Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman), one current (Rick Perry)—pale in comparison with Jindal’s. Louisiana was in far worse shape than Massachusetts, Utah, or Texas when Jindal took over in 2008. And that’s why his reforms have been more sweeping and dramatic. “We’ll run out of time before we run out of things to do,” he says.
Jindal has done what most -governors only dream about. But he and his aides are painfully aware his accomplishments are unknown outside the state. To spread the word, they’ve produced a five-page report headlined “Louisiana Turnaround—The Untold Story.” It’s a largely factual document with minimal spin or exaggeration.
Listing 63 separate actions, reforms, or changes, it makes the point that a lot has happened in Jindal’s first four years. He cut spending sharply before that became sexy. In 2008, the state budget was $34.4 billion. For 2012, it’s $25.4 billion, a 26 percent decline. Nearly 10,000 state jobs have been eliminated. “If you enforce fiscal discipline, it frees you to do things you should have done anyway,” according to Jindal.
He gets credit for the biggest income tax cut—$1.1 billion over five years—in state history. At his instigation, the legislature approved an array of business tax reductions, including a 25 to 30 percent tax credit to attract movie production.
He’s a refusenik on tax hikes, vowing never to raise taxes. He even blocked an extension of a cigarette tax. To get around Jindal and prevent the tax from expiring, legislators passed a state constitutional amendment. (Jindal could have vetoed the amendment but chose not to.)
Jindal insists it’s the certainty on taxes that draws so many companies to the state. “They’re coming here because they know nobody’s going to raise taxes on them,” he told me. And they like the “level playing field” that now exists. In October, Louisiana added jobs at twice the national rate. Unemployment fell from 8.2 percent in May to 7 percent in November.
When I traveled around Louisiana with Jindal in late November, he touted new jobs. In Broussard, Marine International said it was bringing 90 jobs back from China. At that event, Jindal was declared an “honorary Cajun.” In Alexandria, Sundrop Fuels announced it would build a factory, hire 150 people, and produce what it calls “the world’s first, ready-to-use, renewable ‘green gasoline.’ ” A Sundrop official slipped me a press release with this written in ink: “Sundrop Fuels has not received any federal funding or loans.”
Jindal loves these jobs announcements, not only for their political and economic value, but also because they underscore a point he often makes. “Conservative ideas don’t just sound good,” he says. “They actually work. That’s the secret of our success.” He wants Louisiana to be seen as a model for other states to follow.
His first task as governor in 2008 was something more basic: to address the ethics of Louisiana’s political class. The state, with a well-earned reputation for corruption, was frequently ridiculed. Former Louisiana congressman Billy Tauzin joked that the state was “half under water, half under indictment.” Rolfe McCollister, who publishes several magazines in Baton Rouge, says, “It was downright embarrassing to hear what people thought of us.”
That’s changing. As a result of disclosure, transparency, and ethics enforcement reforms, the Better Government Association lifted Louisiana from 46th to 5th on its Integrity Index. The Center for Public Integrity places the state 1st in its ranking of legislative disclosure requirements.
Ethics reform plays a significant part in Louisiana’s improved business climate. In 2009, the Gallup Job Creation Index ranked the state number three in the country. In 2010, Site Selection magazine rated its business climate number one in the nation. There’s no dispute that Louisiana’s economy is vastly better than it was.
Jindal still has things he wants to prove. New Orleans once had “the worst of the worst school systems,” he says, but now it’s America’s “only charter city.” Its school system, with 70 percent charter schools, has scored gains recently. “If it can work there, it can be done anywhere,” the governor says.
And he’d like the city to rise as a major hub again. It lost to Miami as South America’s “gateway” to this country, to Birmingham as the South’s leading medical center, and to Houston as the home of the energy industry. New Orleans has a long way to go.
Jindal’s political strength comes from his popular support around the state. Earlier reform governors—notably David Treen from 1980 to 1984 and Buddy Roemer from 1988 to 1992—got entangled in legislative machinations in Baton Rouge and lost bids for reelection. Their reforms were mostly undone. Jindal has spent more time around the state, visiting all 64 parishes each year. He won all 64 in the October election. In his new term, Jindal can broaden and lock in his reforms.
Despite his clout, Jindal is not a budding Huey Long, though he says there was a “positive side” to Long. “He brought Louisiana kicking and screaming into the 20th century.” But as a conservative who favors limited government, Jindal says “you don’t want the people to come to the state government for everything.”
Jindal has an amazing personal story. He grew up in a Hindu family in Baton Rouge, converted to Catholicism as a teenager, graduated at 20 from Brown, was a Rhodes Scholar, ran the Louisiana hospital system and colleges, then lost his first race for governor in 2003, but was elected to the U.S. House in 2004. He spent three years on Capitol Hill and returned home to win the governorship in 2007.
It’s a résumé that no politician in America can match. And like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, he’s a 40-something conservative Republican. His future after he steps down as governor may be hazy, but it’s awfully bright.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.