Chris Orr is drawing on the expressions of current Republican anti-Obama sentiment to claim vindication for his prediction that Bobby Jindal would be rejected by Republican primary voters if he were to run for President. Orr is still wrong about Jindal for the same reasons Ross Douthat, Dave Weigel and I gave back then, which is why it is important to stress the importance of ideology, partisanship and nationalism in understanding Birther nonsense and overall hostility to Obama. Were Obama a pro-war Republican who belonged to a mostly or entirely conservative denomination, none of the fears and obsessions about his heritage or place of birth would have gained any purchase on the right.
Back in October, I tried to explain the reason for the deep distrust of Obama on the right:
As with so many of the controversies of this year, the increasingly negative Republican reaction to Obama from the start of the year until now has been tied directly to the growing perception that Obama was insufficiently Americanist such that he has been regularly described as someone who does not believe in American exceptionalism. The idea that he does not believe in American exceptionalism happens to be as false as it is widespread, as any brief survey of Obama’s public remarks would make clear. (What Americanists on the right forget is that American exceptionalism survives because it is a widely shared, albeit misguided, idea that has adherents across the political spectrum.) Even all of the rumors and chain e-mails that cast doubt on Obama’s background were aimed at denying or questioning his Americanness because there was a presumption that an antiwar left-liberal Democrat (a veritable neo-McGovernite in the fantasies of some Republicans) was not Americanist enough or at all and it is this supposed lack of Americanism that makes Republicans revile him as much as they do. As a source of anti-Obama sentiment, this has always been more important than his left-leaning politics or any specific part of his domestic agenda. To some extent, it is not possible to disentangle Obama’s heritage, his particular experience of liberal Protestantism and his politics, but for the most part what has troubled Republicans, or at least what Republicans have focused on, is mainly the anti-Americanism of his past associates. Even in the last sputtering gasps of the McCain campaign, the socialist charge is one last attempt to link Obama to an ideology that has often been defined as a foreign import.
Jindal suffers from none of this baggage, despite the fact that neither of his parents was born in the United States, because he identifies strongly with both the conservative Catholic and American nationalist elements in the GOP. Even though Jindal came to Christianity as a convert just as Obama did, it is the kind of Christianity he embraced that makes a huge difference. His religion and nationalism together immunize him fairly well against any attacks or conspiracy theories of the kind that have been used against Obama. If he were just a traditional Catholic, but not a nationalist, that could create friction with many constituencies in the GOP, and if he were just a secular or non-Christian nationalist he would run into significant resistance from many Christian voters, but the combination makes him acceptable to a broad cross-section of the party. Religious identity politics shields him from being regarded as “Other,” and among a significant number of Republicans his story of first-generation American assimilation and success is one of the main reasons why Jindal is so well-liked. Perhaps just as important, Jindal provides Republican voters with the opportunity to demonstrate their color-blind, anti-racist credentials, and they will jump at the chance to support him, if only to spite people on the left who expect them to do otherwise. It may be difficult for Orr to believe or take seriously, but all of this has enormous appeal on the right. The ludicrous response to the nomination of Sotomayor cannot be understood apart from the burning desire to pin the racist label on the left and take up the banner of color-blind equal protection. At some point in the past, this may have been opportunistic, but it has become deeply ingrained and integral to how a large number of conservatives understand themselves. The movement and the party that went into a frenzy over Sotomayor’s non-existent racism are not going to oppose Jindal because he is Indian-American.
Especially during his second run for governor, many conservative Louisiana voters came to see Jindal as “one of them” because of shared religious and political commitments. In his 2007 win, he overcame much of the resistance from northern Louisiana parishes, whose support for Blanco was interpreted after the 2003 election as evidence of racial antagonism. Whatever the reason for Jindal’s failure in northern Louisiana in 2003, his improvement in many of the same parishes that had defeated him four years before demonstrated how weak the resistance to his candidacy was when he presented them with a second chance to vote for him. This is the well-known story of Jindal’s electoral success in Louisiana. There is good reason to think that Jindal could replicate that success elsewhere with conservative Republican voters in other states. This will not be tested in 2012, because Jindal is not very likely to run for President in the next cycle, but it is important to understand that his reasons for not running will not include the concern that many Republican voters will hold his ethnicity against him.