As Mitt Romney honed his vice presidential short list this summer, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal reportedly made it to the final four before being passed over in favor of Paul Ryan.
The case for Jindal was strong: He is a reliable economic and social conservative with a strong background in public policy. He is Indian-American while all the other realistic VP options were white. Unlike Ryan, he had executive experience and a track record of winning statewide.
In short, Jindal represented–like Sarah Palin–a demographically interesting pick who might help politically while–unlike Sarah Palin–he is also someone who could actually help govern the country. So why didn’t he get the nod?
Jindal is perhaps a little too socially conservative for Romney’s taste (Google “Jindal exorcism” to get an idea). Louisiana is a state that Republicans were almost certain to carry; if it ever became competitive, the presidential election was lost anyway. But the biggest knock against Jindal was his weakness as a communicator.
The youthful-looking governor is certainly articulate, but many listeners consider him dull and too policy-oriented even by comparison with Ryan. He bombed his national television debut when he was given the unenviable task of responding to President Obama’s first speech to Congress. Despite calling Obama the most liberal and incompetent president since Jimmy Carter, Jindal wasn’t considered an attack dog by nature.
The conventional wisdom, at least, is that vice presidential candidates who are good on the attack—ranging from Spiro Agnew to Joe Biden—help their tickets while nice guys (think Jack Kemp or Joe Lieberman) finish last.
Romney is finally learning the hard way that Jindal can indeed thrive in the attack dog role—because he has been Jindal’s first victim. Last week he criticized Romney’s campaign, saying it was “too much about biography” and not “enough about a vision of where they wanted to take our country.”
Jindal was even more pointed when Romney blamed his defeat at the ballot box on the Obama administration’s “gifts” to various segments of the electorate, remarks reminiscent of his taped ruminations on the “47 percent.”
“That is absolutely wrong,” Jindal reportedly replied. “I absolutely reject that notion.” Instead he said that Republicans must make that case that “we are fighting for 100 percent of the votes, and secondly, our policies benefit every American who wants to pursue the American dream. Period. No exceptions.”
Jindal doubled down on Twitter. “If you want voters to like you, you’ve got to like them first,” he wrote. “It’s certainly not helpful to tell them you think their votes were bought.”
Agnew this isn’t, and many other Republicans were critical of Romney’s post-election analysis. But it accomplishes two things: it shows that Jindal isn’t Romney and isn’t afraid to speak his mind, both characteristics that could endear him to GOP primary voters disappointed by the outcome of the 2012 presidential election.
Jindal still isn’t shy about going after Obama, following his anti-Romney missive with a Benghazi-related tweet: “Prez vowed people who killed 4 Americans in Libya would pay, but only guy in jail is one who made the video that didn’t cause this.”
The 2016 Republican presidential field is likely to be more serious than this year’s crop. Ryan, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, and perhaps even Jeb Bush are among a few names that will be floated over the next four years. For Jindal to have a chance, he must stand out in this group.
In the early going, Jindal has set out to do so as the anti-Romney. “We’ve got to make sure that we are not the party of big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes, big anything,” Jindal told Politico. “We cannot be, we must not be, the party that simply protects the rich so they get to keep their toys.”
Over the longer term, Jindal can seek to occupy a middle ground between an unprincipled Republican establishment and conservative insurgents whose well-publicized gaffes have cost Republicans multiple Senate seats during the last two elections: neither Tommy Thompson nor Todd Akin, Mike Castle nor Christine O’Donnell.
“We’ve also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism,” Jindal recently said. “We need to stop being simplistic, we need to trust the intelligence of the American people and we need to stop insulting the intelligence of the voters.”
Welcome words. Only time will tell whether Jindal can deliver on their promise.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a contributing editor to The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter.