Bad for Jindal, Good for Romney (and Palin, and Huckabee)

Even Fox News panned it, but at least a handful of Republicans had to be delighted by the Mister Rogers/Kenneth the Page impersonation that Bobby Jindal performed on national television the other night: his fellow 2012 aspirants.

A rising star in the national Republican Party since his near-miss Louisiana gubernatorial bid in 2003, Jindal’s moment in the national sun was supposed to mark his coming out as a national figure—and serious contender to lead his party in the next presidential election.

But he flopped miserably, delivering what surely ranks as the single-most disastrous response to a presidential address ever delivered. The scathing reviews were made worse by the high expectations that preceded Jindal’s speech—that couldn’t have been the brilliant, charismatic Brown/Oxford-educated leader we’d been hearing about, viewers had to be saying. Worse still for Jindal, his performance came in the YouTube era, ensuring that his awkward gait, odd smile, and children’s-story-hour tone will seem fresh even three years from now.

At the very least, the Jindal debacle means that the youthful governor missed a golden opportunity to insert himself into the top tier of an unusually fluid and formless G.O.P. field.

Traditionally, Republicans have nominated the last campaign’s second-place finisher for their next open nomination. Technically, then, this would make Mitt Romney – who finished with the second-most votes among the ’08 G.O.P. field—the ’12 front-runner. But Romney’s case is different from John McCain’s, George H.W. Bush’s, Bob Dole’s and Ronald Reagan’s. Each of them achieved more than Romney did in their losing efforts, and all but Reagan also enjoyed a prominent post-election platform that allowed them to maintain visibility—and to build intra-party support.

Romney is more like Steve Forbes or Lamar Alexander, G.O.P. also-rans who fared decently (but not at all spectacularly) against Dole in ’96 and who began campaigning for the 2000 nomination the day after Dole’s loss to Bill Clinton. Neither had accomplished enough in ’96 to be considered the de facto next-in-line candidate, and both were easily pushed aside by George W. Bush’s bandwagon —and McCain’s insurgent effort, for that matter.

With no obvious front-runner and with rank-and-file Republicans open to fresh faces who show promise of returning their party to glory, the opening for Jindal this past week was obvious; an all-star performance, much like a breakout speech at a national convention, could have generated an explosion in grassroots interest that would, in turn, have prompted the national media to treat him like a top-tier prospect going forward.

That was the best-case scenario, anyway. More realistically (since it’s difficult to stir convention-level fervor through a presidential addresses response, which is delivered without the benefit of a cheering audience), Jindal had a chance to prove himself a thoughtful, articulate and compelling figure—someone to watch closely as ’12 approaches. And yet, he managed to realize the absolute worst-case scenario, establishing himself as the national joke of the week.

Can he somehow overcome it? Well, there’s always the example of Bill Clinton, who actually twice embarrassed himself on national television before winning the 1992 Democratic nomination. His first brush with infamy came in 1985, when, as the 38-year-old governor of Arkansas, he narrated the Democrats’ official video response to Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union speech. Humbled by their landslide defeat the previous fall, the video’s producers had drafted a script that practically gushed with affection for Reagan. Its airing prompted an outraged response from the party’s rank-and-file and a loud and very public rebuke from House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

Then, three years later, Michael Dukakis tapped Clinton to deliver the formal nominating speech at the Atlanta convention that certified Dukakis as the party’s standard-bearer. Delegates sat impatiently as Clinton prattled on and on, finally erupting in a mocking ovation when he uttered the words “in conclusion.” Wisely, Clinton began his damage control efforts immediately, accepting an invitation to appear on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” a few nights later and playing along with a smile when Carson, after asking an innocuous opening question, pulled out a giant hour glass and placed it on his desk. If SNL comes calling, maybe Jindal would be wise to say yes.

But there is a big difference between Clinton’s experience and Jindal’s: Clinton didn’t actually need to overhaul his style to overcome the negative reaction. He had always been and would always be long-winded. But by 1992, when he’d emoted his way to the Democratic nomination, people actually didn’t mind hearing him speak. In ’88, he had simply been a sideshow. Jindal, by contrast, will need to thoroughly alter his basic speaking technique to mount a credible candidacy in ’12. The good news for him is that he’s set the bar plenty low. But you know the cliché about zebras changing their stripes.

When an up-and-coming national prospect is advised to sit out the upcoming election and wait for the future, it’s usually bad advice. All of the big-name Democrats who shied away from running in ’92, convinced that George H.W. Bush would be unstoppable, can attest to this. By the time the nomination was wide open again, they weren’t so up-and-coming anymore.

In Jindal’s case, though, this may actually be sound advice. Obviously, it’s possible that Barack Obama will be vulnerable in ’12, but history and current trends suggest it’s more likely that the G.O.P. will be in the wilderness for a while. If Jindal were to hold off until 2016, it would give him more time to recover his reputation, plus it would resolve a tricky situation: since Louisiana holds off-year elections, he’s now due to stand for re-election in November 2011, perhaps less than two months before the New Hampshire primary. If he waits until 2016, he could secure a second term and serve it out, while campaigning full-time for the presidency throughout 2015.

Meanwhile, Mitt and Sarah and Mike can breathe a little easier: the threat from the Bayou has been averted, at least for now.

  Bad for Jindal, Good for Romney (and Palin, and Huckabee)