Wednesday, 10 July 2013 11:55
Jindal's political future may include a transformative but unpopular governor
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Jindal-collageIn the slow days after a regular legislative session has ended, complete with the governor’s chance to veto bills and line items and when it has become apparent there won’t be an unprecedented veto session, during this period of sparse political news in recent years it’s become fashionable for observers, looking for something to discuss, to assess the states of Louisiana and Gov. Bobby Jindal. With his relatively high national profile, there’s always something banging around in his political life that can provide fodder for commentary.


Thus we get an excursion into his national political health, on the assumption that he covets substantial elective office of some kind at that level; specifically, the nexus of how his state governance translates into future ambitions. From legislators who work with him and a pollster, we learn that his popularity has dipped into negative territory because reform is wearing people out and that he needs more engagement in order to succeed more with a reform agenda. Further, this engagement must be at a more personal and visceral and less nuanced level. Until he behaves this way, it is averred, he cannot create state policy-making success that pays dividends at the national level.

All of this is true, yet most of it is irrelevant to understand the state’s current policy-making environment that shapes and constrains Jindal. The clue comes from the notion of “reform fatigue,” because this reveals the motive force behind much of his policy-making and the reaction to it. Simply put, that is this: Jindal’s gubernatorial career has consisted of a radical and entirely necessary transformation of the state’s political culture that started behind the scenes and now has burst into full view that has challenged allies and enemies alike, and he’s paying for it at the state level.

Such has been the significance of this five-year stretch that the only other such period that even matches it was the former Gov. Huey Long Administration of 1928-32, which offered a similar period of challenging the culture, yet in evolutionary fashion as it represented a change in methodology, not ideology. Few understand how ingrained into Louisiana’s political culture is the populist idea that government serves first and foremost as device to distribute resources. Even in the century after statehood, that notion was present in governance, in the form that a certain advantaged class of individuals benefit from government policy, then degraded further in the 20th century to that the mass public becomes involved in the wider redistribution of wealth rather than limiting it to the elite. The only significant difference came in that focusing on the masses called for increase wealth redistribution as a corollary to power distribution performed by government.

Even considered “conservative” governors of the past never rejected this consensus. As an example, they never opted to confront the wasteful Long-built government-run health care system, which Jindal did and dismantled in just a few years. This happened because of a marriage of ideology and convenience. Why should the state have all of these government-operated hospitals and residential centers for the developmentally disabled when other states never had or had abandoned this inefficient regime? This belief of Jindal’s set the stage, then circumstance permitted.

The central reform problem was so much government shunted monetary resources to certain individuals through employment and power resources to other state elected and unelected officials, so none had any incentive to change this. Upon election, Jindal (who headed these functions early in his career) went to where the opportunity existed to exert power as chief executive at the margins by moving the state’s Medicaid system from a money-follows-the-institution to a money-follows-the-person regime and eliminating most of the warehousing of the disabled. This was done with little public attention or curiosity, as the number of state employees involved were few and the amount of dollars dispersed widely as not to arouse political elites.

To this point, on this issue and many others, he was a cautious reformer. But then with reelection and that political capital gained and circumstance forced upon the state in this policy area, a sharp curtailment of revenues, he now had the leverage to go all in and in effect to dismantle the charity system, including paring direct government provision of mental health care as well. The transference of dollars away from government and reduction in the substantial portion of the state government payroll was much more provocative and drew complaints from Republican allies precisely because it drained government money from being pumped into their districts and jobs were transferred out in a way that no longer enabled them to claim credit for the presence of these.

And while a GOP legislator here or there might say there’s too much “nuance” in explaining actions that if explicated differently might create less backlash, the fact is the confrontation of the populist political culture occurs because the actions involved are so beyond its norm that no appeal to principle will succeed. The culture is that at the individual level the majority expects somebody other than it to give to it until it hurts, but then cannot understand that this attitude produces at the holistic, statewide level policy irrationality that defies any principled explanation; i.e., why cannot the state afford $4 million more a year to assist the disabled when it gives away 50 times that amount a year to movie-makers or 10 times that amount to people who work but don’t pay any income taxes? And to a public whose ideological consensus is the opposite of his reform agenda?

For any national aspirations, Jindal may hope that audience recognizes the transformative nature of his tenure and credits him for that. But given Louisiana’s political culture, there is little chance he can accomplish this and remain popular at home. After all, prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.

Jeffrey Sadow

Jeffrey Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University in Shreveport.   He writes a daily conservative blog called Between The Lines

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