Assessing Jindal

Critics look past the delivery and slam the speech's substance

Bobby Jindal, the thirty-seven-year-old governor of Louisiana, delivered the Republican response to Pres. Obama’s faux-state-of-the-union address last night. It was pretty highly anticipated. NPR’s John Burnettcalled Jindal “nearly everything the Republicans need after their electoral thrashing”; The Washington Post, meanwhile, labeled him “the anointed boy wonder” of the Republican party. He’s also been called popular, smart, and wonky. Delivering the Republican response was, some said, a coming out party for the governor.

So how did he do? As it turns out, not too well. Many jeered his delivery: the “slightly high-school debate team feel” (Sullivan), the “near schoolteacher-like monotone” (NYT Caucus) that was “oddly stilted” (Crowley), “a gee whiz quality that isn’t quite presidential” (Jennifer Rubin), and the Kenneth-from-30-Rock-like intonations (seemingly the blogosphere at large). The criticisms recalled Charles Mahtesian’s tongue-in-cheek warning to Jindal: “Note to Bobby Jindal: They’re going to hate you.”

But thankfully, instead of simply dwelling on cosmetic complaints, the punditry also addressed what they saw as substantial weaknesses in the content of the governor’s response: a formulaic partisan vernacular, at a time when a true alternative vision would have been readily welcomed.

Kate Phillips at the New York Times’s Caucus blog wrote, in no glowing terms, that Jindal recited “much of the Republican criticisms of the stimulus package and the differences between smaller government and bigger government.” Alex Koppelman at Salon bemoaned the fact that Jindal “repeated a whole lot of very familiar messaging,” and Ramesh Ponnuru at the National Review Online wrote that “the content will play well with the party base but seems unlikely to expand it.” Andrew Sullivan retorted that Jindal didn’t offer an alternative proposal on the financial crisis, instead trying “to attack government spending simply because it’s government spending.” (Bemused, Sullivan reminded his readers: “this guy is supposed to be the smart one.”)

David Brooks responded on Jim Lehrer with what seems likely to be the definitive critique:

I think Bobby Jindal is a very promising politician, and I oppose the stimulus because I thought it was poorly drafted. But to come up at this moment in history with a stale “government is the problem,” “we can’t trust the federal government” - it’s just a disaster for the Republican Party. The country is in a panic right now. They may not like the way the Democrats have passed the stimulus bill, but that idea that we’re just gonna - that government is going to have no role, the federal government has no role in this, that - In a moment when only the federal government is actually big enough to do stuff, to just ignore all that and just say “government is the problem, corruption, earmarks, wasteful spending,” it’s just a form of nihilism. It’s just not where the country is, it’s not where the future of the country is.

Especially considering Jindal’s reputation as a policy wonk—in a prewritten piece for today’s Washington Post, Michael Gerson called him “an inspiration to policy geeks everywhere”—that attention to detail was surprisingly absent last night. Instead, Jindal delivered what critics quickly labeled partisan boilerplate about the need for tax cuts, an aggressive stance on earmarks, and a strange argument that governmental failure during Hurricane Katrina is proof positive that the government doesn’t (and won’t) work. This led MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow to dub the speech “a mindless, policy free response” and “what happens when you put a premium on things that sound good rather than policies that, you know, work.” Abe Greenwald at Commentary criticized the fact that Jindal didn’t respond directly to Obama’s address, merely offering, like parallel train tracks, “a GOP narrative to run alongside the general democratic one.”

Inflection-and-tone commentary aside, it was good—reassuring, even—to see critics from both sides of the aisle assess the speech on its merits, and not simply on its intonations. Jindal came up short, and it wasn’t because he sounded like a character on TV.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.