Jindal Gestures for President

Bobby Jindal is interested in running for president in 2012. We know this not because he has said much about the matter – on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” he provided all of the customary non-answers – but because of his words and actions on another subject.

Jindal, who will deliver the Republican response to Barack Obama’s address to Congress on Tuesday night, has shrewdly built anticipation for his moment in the sun by announcing that he will refuse $100 million in federal stimulus money earmarked for Louisiana, a posture he reaffirmed on “Meet the Press.”

“I think we just have a fundamental disagreement here,” Jindal said. “I don’t think the best way to [stimulate the economy] is for the government to tax and borrow more money.”

Jindal is not refusing all, or even most, of his state’s share of stimulus money, only $100 million or so in federal unemployment assistance – money designed to allow states to expand eligibility for unemployment benefits.

His rationale for this is suspect. Jindal claims that the unemployment assistance actually amounts to an unfunded mandate, since Louisiana would need to permanently change its eligibility rules, while the federal money would expire in short order. But, as his state’s Democratic senator, Mary Landrieu, has pointed out, there’s no reason why Louisiana or any other state couldn’t revert to its old eligibility rules when the federal money runs out; this is actually what the authors of the stimulus envisioned.

Jindal, not surprisingly, wouldn’t have any of this when David Gregory pointed it out to him, and why should he? The tortured logic that Jindal is clinging to is simply a justification for a posture that reeks of 2012 calculations. Sure, any old Republican can stand up and criticize the stimulus plan; but how many can say they’ve actually rejected the money?

There are short- and long-term political benefits for Jindal. In the immediate future, his chief concern is increasing his visibility and making a favorable impression on his party’s activist base. By using his platform as governor to thrust himself into the stimulus debate, Jindal has won national attention he wouldn’t ordinarily receive as governor. And right now, there’s little the G.O.P. base hates more than the stimulus package.

Looking further down the road, Jindal is also potentially equipping himself with a valuable calling card – an anecdote he can relate in interviews, speeches, and debates as 2012 approaches. You can almost picture the Jindal mailers hitting Council Bluffs sometime in December 2011, with one of the bullet points reminding Republicans that “Governor Jindal had the courage to take Barack Obama’s check and tear it up.” (Of course, if the economy is strong by then, Jindal may not be so eager to remind voters that he opposed the stimulus, although this isn’t as much of a risk among just Republicans.)

If anything, Jindal is merely highlighting one of the perks that comes with pursuing the White House from a state house – the chance to capture attention and loyalty with dramatic and decisive-seeming executive actions.

There’s nothing new to this at all. When Woodrow Wilson won election as New Jersey’s governor in 1910, he immediately set about pressing legislation that would win notice from the progressive wing of the national Democratic Party. His was a consequential governorship, but it was also a non-stop campaign for the 1912 presidential election.

More recently, there was Mitt Romney, who devoted the second half of his Massachusetts governorship to racking up a list of “achievements” that could be sold to national conservatives as proof of his commitment to the cause. For instance, in December 2006 – less than a month before his term expired – Romney made national news by deputizing state olice troops to arrest and detain those they suspected of being illegal immigrants.

It put him squarely and dramatically on the right side of an issue dear to the national G.O.P.’s conservative base and provided him with a talking point that he repeated approximately 146,000 times during his presidential campaign. For all the drama, though, his action was a gimmick: The state police had already made clear their opposition to the plan and so had Romney’s successor, Deval Patrick, who took office a few weeks later and promptly rescinded Romney’s order. Not that Mitt cared; he’d already gotten what he wanted.

Jindal’s refusal of federal aid will have more governing implications than Romney’s executive order, since it will deny unemployment benefits to thousands of Louisianans. It’s telling, though, that Jindal didn’t refuse the whole package. While that would have been more dramatic, it also would have caused him serious political trouble in his home state. So, it appears, he manufactured a technicality to justify refusing only a portion of the money. This way, he avoids a mutiny back home but still gets to brag to Republicans in Iowa about turning Barack’s money away.

Nor is Jindal the only Republican playing this game. His next-door neighbor, Mississippi’s Haley Barbour, also appears interested in the ’12 race and said on CNN on Sunday that he too would refuse the unemployment money. Mark Sanford of South Carolina has hinted at possibly rejecting some money as well.

It’s all about principle, they say. Don’t believe it.

Jindal Gestures for President