Bobby Jindal’s (Almost) Radical GOP Reformism

8e64one is the loneliest number Bobby Jindals (Almost) Radical GOP Reformism

Transom scribe Ben Domenech
calls Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s recent

speech to the Republican National Convention “as close to
an encapsulation of libertarian populism” as he’s seen from an
elected official. That’s not how I would describe it, but Jindal
did manage to deliver a rare thing: a major political speech that’s
actually worth reading.Which is not to say it’s one I entirely, or even mostly, agree
with. Jindal’s speech is admirably focused on getting away from a
Washington-centric view of America and the economy. But he’s so
determined to push the idea that government isn’t the be-all,
end-all of American life that he ends up saying things like:
“Balancing our government’s books is not what matters most.”
Instead, it’s “a nice goal, but not what matters most.” He warns
that “today’s conservatism is completely wrapped up in solving the
hideous mess that is the federal budget, the burgeoning deficits,
the mammoth federal debt, the shortfall in our entitlement
programs…even as we invent new entitlement programs,” and is clear
that he thinks this monomania is a bad thing. His fellow
conservatives, he says, should be focused on promoting a vision of
growth, of economic success that has nothing to do with government
intervention, of entrepreneurship and individual initiative.
Instead, he says, they “have an obsession with bookkeeping.”Judging by the actual governing record of Republicans in
Washington, they aren’t nearly obsessed enough. It was under
President Bush that federal spending climbed the most in both real
and per-capita terms, that Congress nearly doubled defense spending
and passed an unfunded expansion of Medicare benefits. President
Obama took Bush’s inflated spending levels, topped them off, and
has more or less made them permanent—but it was Bush who allowed
federal spending to grow the most. That’s what happened when
Republicans focused on growth rather than boring old budget math,
and it’s part of why the budget situation is, as Jindal correctly
notes, such a wreck today.Nor is it clear that this GOP obsession has grown stronger in
ways that matter. Republicans remain wary of talking about real
cuts to spending: Just look at Mitt Romney’s detail-free campaign,
or House Speaker John Boehner’s repeated evasions when it comes to
offering specifics about spending cuts or entitlement reforms. In
the last week, the GOP has hatched a plan to try putting together a
budget that balances in a decade, but the boldest budget framework
that Republicans have endorsed so far—the Ryan Roadmap—was a plan
to balance the budget in about forty years. Today’s Republicans
could probably stand to be a little more wrapped up in “solving the
hideous mess that is the federal government”—especially since it’s
a mess that yesterday’s Republicans helped create.So why do I think it’s a speech worth reading? Because for all
the griping about how Republicans are too focused on fixing federal
failures, and too little focused on the campaign-friendly topic of
jolting economic growth, Jindal hints at a refreshingly (almost)
radical vision of federal reform:
We must focus on the empowerment of citizens making relevant and
different decisions in their communities while Democrats sell
factory-style government that cranks out one dumbed-down answer for
the whole country.
This means re-thinking nearly every social program in
Washington. Very few of them work in my view, and frankly, the
one-size fits all crowd has had its chance.
If any rational human being were to create our government anew,
today, from a blank piece of paper – we would have about one fourth
of the buildings we have in Washington and about half of the
government workers.
We would replace most of its bureaucracy with a handful of good
If we created American government today, we would not dream of
taking money out of people’s pockets, sending it all the way to
Washington, handing it over to politicians and bureaucrats to
staple thousands of pages of artificial and political instructions
to it, then wear that money out by grinding it through the engine
of bureaucratic friction…and then sending what’s left of it back to
the states, where it all started, in order to grow the American
What we are doing now to govern ourselves is not just wrong. It
is out of date and it is a failure.
This, in my view, is the most
interesting part of the speech, and the part with the most
potential. That’s a pretty low threshold, to be sure, but how often
does one hear a major political figure even suggest that we should
not simply accept the dysfunctional major federal policy structures
of today and work within their bounds? I don’t expect much to come
of it, of course, but it’s nice to hear Jindal go beyond asking how
to manage the policy infrastructure we have a little more
efficiently (not that doing so would be a bad thing!).I call this an almost radical vision of federal reform
because the answers Jindal suggests are quite a bit smaller than
the big questions he seems to be asking: Block granting federal
programs is a good idea, and could significantly improve any number
of existing policies, but still requires the federal government to
funnel megabucks into state budgets. And I’d love to replace
bureaucrats and bureaucracies with accessible web portals, but in
this context, Jindal’s remark has the whiff of tech-guru
utopianism. The GOP doesn’t need any more consultants promising to
make things easy. In a later section of the speech, meanwhile,
Jindal tacks on a series of bullet points that basically restate
the GOP’s old commitments to government-led social conservatism and
defense-hawk maximalism. Jindal, like many Republican reformers,
seems unwilling to consider the possibility that those commitments
might be out of date failures as well.Still, he gets two big ideas right: One is that government isn’t
everything, or even most everything; it’s a sideshow, and life has
an awful lot more to offer than another tax break, public benefit,
or office of somekindasomething affairs. That’s something that
politicians don’t say enough, and certainly don’t act on very
often. The other is that policy reform is a bigger project than
most of today’s Republicans imagine, and should involve a ground-up
rethinking of just about everything government currently
does. The speech is pretty pointedly directed at a Republican party
that’s doing some rethinking of its own right now. Indeed, part of
what’s fascinating here is that you can see the collision of two
strains of right-of-center reformism: On the one hand, Jindal
sounds notes that are awfully reminiscent of the Bush-era
compassionate conservatism that disregarded basic budget soundness
in favor of pro-growth economic happy talk. On the other hand, he
suggests the outlines of a vision for wholesale, limited-government
reform—one that not only asks how to make government work, but what
government is actually for. It’s not a vision of “populist
libertarianism” so much as a vision of populism and a vision of
something kinda sorta friendly to libertarianism competing for
dominance. Jindal doesn’t get these two ideas to harmonize, but he
does suggest that as the GOP reconsiders its mission and purpose,
they’ll be duking it out for a while to come. 


Bobby Jindal’s (Almost) Radical GOP Reformism

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