How Bobby Jindal, a Rising Star, Plummeted Back to Earth

As the Louisiana governor prepares to make his presidential run official on Wednesday, he's struggling to find support at home and nationally.
by | June 23, 2015

Bobby Jindal has been the dominant force in Louisiana politics over the past decade, but his fortunes have fallen as he prepares to leave office.

He's struggled in the presidential race, ahead of his official announcement on Wednesday. Jindal receives about 1 percent in national polls of the GOP field, putting him well toward the back of the enormous Republican pack.

Jindal is not doing very well at home, either. His approval ratings in Louisiana are hovering around 30 percent. That puts him in about the same place as Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco, back when critics were lambasting her for her handling of Hurricane Katrina a decade ago.

"Jindal's down here free-falling and it's really about the perception of the kind of job he's doing as governor," said pollster Bernie Pinsonat when Southern Media Research Group released a poll last month. "There's no catastrophic event that's affecting him."

Even the Republicans running to replace Jindal in the November election are signaling they'll take a different approach.

"We have three Republicans and one Democrat running to replace Jindal, and all of them are running against Jindal," said George Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "Members of his own party are running against his record."

All of this represents a striking setback for a politician who enjoyed a meteoric rise at home and was at one time considered a likely star on the national stage.

Jindal is a son of Indian immigrants who became a Rhodes scholar. He was appointed secretary of health in Louisiana when he was just 12 years old. That's a joke. He was actually 24.

At 28, an age when many of his peers were still in school, he became the president of the University of Louisana system. Following a stint in the George W. Bush administration, Jindal returned home to run for governor in 2003. He lost but quickly recovered, twice winning election to the U.S. House before winning the governorship in 2007.

Jindal was a conservative from the start, doing his best to cut taxes and the size of state government. During his first term, he was thrust into the spotlight by national Republicans happy to have a young, non-white politician ready to challenge President Obama. Jindal gave the official GOP response to Obama's first address to Congress in 2009. It was poorly received, even by people sympathetic to the governor's message.

Jindal was not only blasted by the usual liberal suspects at HuffingtonPost and MSNBC, but on outlets such as Fox News, where panelists right after the speech variously described his performance as "really poor" and "amateurish."

"He's never recovered from his response," said Henry Olsen, a conservative political analyst at the Ethics & Public Policy Center. "That was widely received as boring and showed him as someone who was uncharismatic."

If his star dimmed on the national stage, Jindal stayed on offense at home. In 2012 Jindal pushed through an ambitious education overhaul, making major changes to teacher tenure and expanding charter schools. What had been a limited experiment with vouchers in Orleans Parish became a statewide program that this year provided "scholarships" to 7.400 students.

"Reformers tried for years and he made it happen," said Jeffrey Sadow, a political scientist at Louisiana State University at Shreveport.

Jindal also left his mark on health care, shifting most Medicaid patients into managed care programs in 2013. Many of the state's Medicaid patients receive care through its network of charity hospitals. Jindal turned over management of all but one of those hospitals to private administrators.

"This is transformative," Sadow said. "It will never go back to what it was."

Needless to say, not everyone was happy about major changes to these key governmental functions. In 2013, Jindal was unable to gain any traction for a tax overhaul package that would have gotten rid of income taxes and raised sales taxes. Jindal has publicly dedicated himself to opposing any tax increase, however, so he put forward a complicated tax-swap plan that he tried to sell as revenue neutral.

Jindal, center, waits to be escorted by lawmakers to address the opening session of the Louisiana state legislature. (AP/Gerald Herbert, Pool)

The governor and the legislature have frequently sparred over the question of what constitutes a tax increase, with Jindal refusing to accept that renewing taxes that are set to expire does not constitute a tax increase. Those tensions came to a head in the budget process this year. Jindal insisted that the budget include a higher education tax credit that was essentially a fiction. Students will nominally be charged a $1,600 fee, but they'll never actually pay it because of the credit, and institutions of higher education will receive no additional money. On paper, though, the credit could be said to "offset" other tax increases. Legislators openly complained that they were asked to sign off on a phony deal to satisfy Jindal's presidential ambitions.

"It was not an easy pill to swallow," said GOP state Rep. Chris Broadwater. "Frankly, I didn't like the optics of the plan. I chose to support it but merely because without it he had guaranteed he was going to veto a number of revenue-raising measures, and that was going to disproportionately impact higher education to the tune of $282 million."

It was a budget that didn't satisfy anyone. Even the private managers of the charity hospitals complained about being shortchanged. On paper, the budget closed a $1.6 billion shortfall, but it's filled with gimmicks. Legislators expect the next governor, whoever it may be, to call a special session early next year to address shortfalls.

Jindal was elected with nearly two-thirds of the vote in 2011, but since then he's managed to make a lot of people unhappy.

"Particularly in his second term, he's come under fire, constantly, from people who feel like he's shortchanged the state in terms of his attention, that he's more interested in running for president than running for governor," Cross said. "He's really burned those bridges in a short amount of time."