Weighing Bobby Jindal as a VP Choice

I haven't blogged about politics in a very long time, perhaps not since the 2008 elections. But Bobby Jindal's name has been in the mix quite a bit this past week as a possible Vice Presidential candidate, so I thought it might be worth looking at some of the arguments that are being put forward, both pro- and contra-.

I worked through some of my own conflicted reactions to Governor Jindal back in 2007, when he was on the verge of winning the governorship of Louisiana (see the comments thread to that post -- a fascinating compilation of unfiltered South Asian American reactions to Jindal).

I talked a lot about my own anxiety in that post, and that's not so much of interest to me today (kind of over it). Now that my son is almost six years old I've been thinking more about him: what it might mean for him, since he's begun to notice the ethnic and racial divide in the U.S. and understand himself as an "Indian American," to see an Indian American in political office at that level. When I think in those terms, I can't help but be a little excited.

Let's start with Ross Douthat's column in the New York Times this week. Douthat goes through all of the major candidates who have been named, ruling out people like Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and Susana Martinez before turning to Senator Rob Portman and Governor Jindal. Here's how Douthat considers Jindal before conceding that Romney may be unlikely to pick him:
But there’s no question that an earnest white Midwestern Methodist like Portman would be the safer choice – so safe, in fact, that he would probably drop out of the headlines the day after he was picked. Jindal, on the other hand, would give the press all kinds of things to fixate on: His youth, his ethnicity, his Ichabod Crane physique, his religious background (he’s a convert from Hinduism to Catholicism) and of course the endless interesting-and-then-some stories that you’ll find percolating in Louisiana politics. 
[Jindal's] no Palin, in other words, but he is the kind of pick you make if you’re willing to accept a little more risk for the chance of a little more reward. As someone who believes Romney is playing things too cautiously at present, I tend to think he should strongly consider the jolt that choosing Jindal might supply him. But as someone who’s also convinced that the Romney camp is entirely content to just aim for a glide to 51 percent, I tend to think they’ll just play it excruciatingly safe and go with Portman. (link)
What Douthat is suggesting is that Jindal may actually be the better pick for Romney in terms of adding a new dimension to his campaign, but he doubts Romney will actually expose himself to any degree of risk (and there is, undoubtedly, a degree of risk in picking Jindal).

I actually think Douthat's premise that Romney is running too "safe" isn't really right: it's not a question of being safe, but of being constrained. Romney has been hemmed in by his past -- he can't spend too much time dwelling on health care, for instance, because he runs the risk of sounding too schizophrenic given his own history on the subject. The same might hold true for any number of other conservative social causes where he's changed his views. Romney, in short, is in a tough spot rhetorically on many issues, but he has a pretty good chance to win against Obama if the economic news continues to be sour. In short, Romney has good reasons to play safe on many of those types of issues: he could win on simply being the Not-Obama.

Still, someone like Jindal might help Romney change the dynamics of the campaign thus far with the injection of fresh blood and a story that looks very different from his own, "my dad was governor and CEO and I am too" narrative. As a child of  immigrants, and as a Catholic convert, Jindal has a chance at least to tap into some new  demographic pools and suggest a new, more inclusive face for the Republican Party going forward.

In my view, the one place where Romney probably really has been too safe and restrained is in reference to his Mormon background and values. As many people have noted, this is a very big part of who Romney is, and even if it makes some people uncomfortable, he should be embracing it as central to his personal narrative. In an odd way, Romney's pattern of skittishness on addressing his Mormon faith might end up being the single strongest point against Jindal. Romney wants to do everything to ensure white Evangelicals that he's Just Like Them, and downplay any and all traces of religious difference. Putting Jindal on the ticket could freak out that same set of conservative voters. That said, it's entirely possible that the "Obama is a Muslim" stuff that has been going around for all these years simply won't be replicated with Jindal, since he really wears his pro-life, anti-Darwin Catholicism on his sleeve. The response could be, in short: "Obama is a Muslim, but Bobby Jindal is a good ol' boy." 

In a blog post for the Washington Post,  Chris Cillizza makes some good points in a post making the case for Jindal. Just as it was with Douthat's analysis, McCain's selection of Palin in 2008 looms large for Cillizza as background. In this case, it's important to remember that McCain likely went to Palin to find a way to blunt the excitement around Barack Obama's historic candidacy:
McCain and his team tried to match history against history by picking former Alaska governor Sarah Palin— she was the first Republican woman on a national ticket — but it blew up in their faces (to put it kindly). 
Picking Jindal would allow Republicans a historic do-over; he would be the first Indian-American on either parties’ national ticket and, unlike Palin, is much more of a known commodity — and hence less of a risk. 
If you want to know how powerful a historic vice presidential pick can be — and how it can drive a positive storyline for days (or even weeks) in the campaign — look no further than when Al Gore chose Joe Lieberman as the first Jewish vice presidential pick in 2000. 
There’s also this x-factor: The Indian-American community can be a major source of campaign cash if they are activated to give. Picking Jindal as VP would ensure huge buy-in — figuratively and literally — from this community. (link)
That last point, about money, is definitely spot on. There is a lot of cash there, and an Indian American population that has tended to lean Democratic -- but not absolutely. Both Jindal and Nikki Haley have already been tapping into this network for their own campaigns. They routinely hold fundraisers in the DC and New York areas with largely wealthy Indian American doctors on the invite list (I have friends and family members who have been invited to some of these). The cash will really start to flow if the stakes are as high as this.

Cillizza also has a sister post, where he makes the counterpoint argument -- the case against selecting Jindal. Among the major points he makes there are Jindal's "Kenneth the Page" problem, from his 2009 speech responding to Obama's address to Congress, and the fact that Jindal actually endorsed Rick Perry at the start of the Republican Primary season last fall. I suspect Jindal's recent spate of campaigning for Romney has probably helped him ease any wounds caused by his earlier preference for Perry, but the Kenneth the Page issue is still what it is. Has Jindal been able to improve his delivery at all? Can he be more telegenic?

If the answer to that is yes, there's a pretty good chance he might be on Romney's ticket.