Kenner, Louisiana: Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is Louisiana’s first nonwhite governor since Reconstruction but whose popularity has plummeted as the state struggled with a $1.6 billion shortfall, announced Wednesday that he is running for president in 2016.
Jindal, 44, an Indian-American, joins the crowded field of Republican contenders in what even his supporters call a long-shot candidacy.
Standing before a giant American flag at an event center in this New Orleans suburb, Jindal presented himself as a policy writer whose resume – as a two-term governor and a former congressman who once led the state health agency and the University of Louisiana system – sets him apart. He said that Louisiana cut the number of ‘government bureaucrats’ by more than 30,000 positions, and that the state now had the highest population in its history, with more people moving to Louisiana than leaving it.
‘There are a lot of great talkers running for president already,’ Jindal said, adding, ‘We’ve had enough of talkers. It is time for a doer.’
Jindal, who took office in 2008, has kept a low profile on the national stage compared with Jeb Bush, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and other Republican candidates and likely candidates. And his approval numbers in the state have fallen sharply as he nears the end of his tenure amid criticism that he has been more focused on laying the groundwork for a presidential run than on Louisiana’s fiscal troubles.
Jindal’s announcement came two days after a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found him sharing the bottom of a list of 16 candidates. In the telephone survey, zero percent of Republican primary voters said Jindal was their top pick to be the nominee. Bush earned 22 percent.
Low support in national polls may have especially significant consequences: Fox News and CNN are limiting the first two major debates to candidates who rank in the top 10 in polls.
‘I don’t think anybody in Louisiana thinks he can win,’ said Roy Fletcher, a Republican political consultant in Baton Rouge who was deputy campaign manager for Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000.
In his speech, Jindal, who was raised as a Hindu but converted to Roman Catholicism, made a forceful appeal to Christian conservatives, accusing liberals for putting Christianity ‘under assault.’ Before he took the stage, a pastor led the audience in a prayer asking God to fill Jindal ‘with the purposes and the plans that you have.’
‘I know that some believe I talk too much about my faith, but I will not be silenced,’ Jindal told supporters. ‘I will not be silenced in order to meet their expectations of political correctness. They don’t seem to accept the idea that you can be both intellectual and Christian.’
Jindal struck another theme popular with social conservatives, blaming President Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton for ‘leading America down the path to destruction’ economically, culturally and internationally. He also went after Bush, criticizing him for saying, as he described it, that Republicans need to be willing to lose the primary in order to win the general election. ‘What Jeb Bush is saying is that we need to hide our conservative ideals,’ Jindal said. ‘But the truth is, if we go down that road again, we will lose again.’
Jindal’s campaign strategists acknowledge his poor showing in national polls and lack of name recognition, but they expressed confidence that he had a message and a path to victory, casting him as the youngest candidate with the longest resume in a wide open Republican race. They said that in such a crowded field, all it takes to win Iowa – and alter the dynamics of the race – is 26,000 votes.
‘You don’t have a leader sitting at the top,’ said Curt Anderson, Jindal’s chief strategist, adding, ‘We start from nowhere, and we’re completely fine with that.’
Unmentioned in his speech, however, were some of Louisiana’s hardships.
The state has the seventh-highest unemployment rate and the third-highest poverty rate in the country. In February, Moody’s Investors Service, the credit-rating agency, revised the state’s financial outlook from ‘stable’ to ‘negative,’ citing the state’s structural budget imbalance.
‘Gov. Jindal has failed Louisiana in every way possible, and there’s no reason to believe he will have any more success as a candidate than he did as governor,’ said state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, the chairwoman of the Louisiana Democratic Party.
Jindal’s drop in popularity in Louisiana is a reversal of fortune of sorts. He was elected in October 2007 largely in reaction to the failures of his Democratic predecessor in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco.
And he had the reputation of a kind of wonky boy genius. At age 24 in 1996, he was appointed secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals, the biggest department in state government, and he quickly went to work cutting jobs and slashing its budget.
Yet over two terms as governor, Jindal’s approval ratings have dipped in part because of his handling of the state’s budget woes. Policy experts and lawmakers blamed the budget shortfall, the state’s worst in decades, in part on the downturn in oil prices that hurt Louisiana and other energy-producing states and in part on the Jindal administration’s fiscal policies.
This month, lawmakers reached an agreement to close the $1.6 billion shortfall that, because of a complex arrangement of tax credits, allows Jindal to technically claim that the state passed a balanced budget without raising new tax revenue.
Republicans called the governor’s tax credit plan, centering on an ‘assessment’ on the state’s public college students that no one will actually pay, ‘money laundering’ and ‘nonsense.’
Jindal and his aides defended his record and his tax credit plan, saying the budget that was passed protected higher education and health care, but was in line with his philosophy of reducing the scale of government.
With inputs from New York Times.