Man at work? Jindal and the endless campaign for vice president

The question today is: When it comes to politics, what qualifies as “work”?

When you are an elected official, what are your obligations to your constituents (and the news media) when it comes to running for re-election or campaigning for others?

Most in the press, I believe, will give you a pass if you are running to keep the job you have (as in Obama’s current campaign for re-election or Jindal’s re-election last year), with one major caveat – you still must perform the duties of the job to which you were elected. No slacking off.

This question, in one form or another, has likely entered your mind in the past two years because Louisiana has had, largely, an absentee governor. If you’re a loyal reader of the Baton Rouge Advocate, you know what I mean.

During that time, the media has often reported that the governor is out of the state. Last year, he traversed the nation raising money for his own re-election (and, I would argue, touting his own availability as a vice presidential candidate). And, now, this year he’s been a constant presence on the national campaign trail, stumping the country for Mitt Romney (and, again, I would argue promoting himself as a potential running mate).

Bobby Jindal

Bobby Jindal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Never fear, you may say, the Louisiana Constitution say that the lieutenant governor becomes acting governor upon the governor’s departure from the state. Unfortunately, based on reporting by the Advocate, it appears that for years Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne learned about Jindal’s travels in the same manner as the rest of Baton Rouge — during his morning coffee while reading the newspaper. Until the Advocate blew the whistle, Jindal was slipping town without ever informing Dardenne.

If the governor were rarely on the lam, this might be no big deal. But, as the Advocate told us last month, since May Jindal has been out of the state 25 percent of the time.

All of this brings to mind a moment from my days as Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s communications director. During a weekly senior staff luncheon at the Governor’s Mansion about six weeks before the beginning of the 2005 legislative session, I was pushing hard for the governor to hit the road, spend a week or two touring the state — meeting with legislators and news media — to sell her program. The travel plan I was pushing would have meant considerable time away from Baton Rouge while many important decisions would need to be made.

Sitting at the other end of the table was then-Commissioner of Administration Jerry Luke LeBlanc, who finally spoke up, to comment on what I was pushing.

“So, Bob, when does she have time to govern?” LeBlanc asked.

Jerry’s astute question has entered my mind many times in the past years — each time I that read about Jindal running around the country, doing everything but taking care of business in Baton Rouge.

When does he have time to govern?

Sure, Jindal, like Blanco, needs to get out around the state to sell his legislative proposals. That’s an important part of governing. But so is running the state, a job Blanco took seriously.

The voters elected her — not Jerry Luke LeBlanc, not chief of staff Andy Kopplin – to run the state. Lord knows, the state had a bushel of problems that required the governor’s daily attention. And, to her credit, she worked very hard to attend to them.

Today, excluding Katrina, Bobby Jindal presides over more and much deeper problems than those Kathleen Blanco faced.

Jindal has a weak economy and he struggles each year to balance the state’s budget. Poverty and health care are – or should be – massive concerns. New Orleans, while coming back strong, still has a long way to go. In short, every day Jindal has dozens of pressing concerns that should keep him busy well into the night.

If he chose to govern instead of travel, he might have a better chance of resolving some of those problems.

Govern. That’s what we elected Bobby Jindal to do. Instead, it seems that work is too often delegated to Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater, who wasn’t elected, or his senior staff, who also were not elected.

Or, perhaps, Jay Dardenne, who was elected but has rarely been aware that he was, technically, in charge.

Jindal, using his office as a stepping-stone to higher office, governs instead by proxy and press release.

Speaking of the press, it’s also a fact that Jindal very rarely has any real interaction with the news media, unless it’s Fox News or “Meet the Press” that’s calling.

Ask any reporter at the state Capitol when he or she last spoke to Jindal, or had the chance to ask him a question, and you’ll get a blank stare.

Now, there is no constitutional requirement that Jindal make himself available to the news media.

There were many days when her press aides did not want Blanco to speak to the press. And some days, we didn’t make her available for interviews.

But, on most days, not only did we see it as politically advantageous to court and speak to the news media, we also viewed it as an obligation in a democratic society.

It’s one of the many ways that public officials are accountable their constituents and Blanco and her aides honored the very proper role played by the news media.

Did we also agree with everything they wrote, or did they always write their stories to put Blanco in a favorable light? Of course not. But we respected them and the role they played our system.

Jindal, it seems, does not respect the press, nor is he comfortable with the daily push and pull of selling his ideas and programs in the public marketplace. Jindal, it seems, prefers scripted, well-organized events before adoring audiences and devoid of surprise questions from the media.

That might make for a good media event; it does not necessarily make a good governor.

Most governors aren’t afraid to face hostile or skeptical questions, from constituents or news reporters. Jindal, who clearly is not comfortable with dissent in his own ranks, is even less comfortable with it when it comes from the press or the public.

Such fear of the rough and tumble also does not make for a good vice presidential candidate.

If I were Mitt Romney’s advisors, this aspect of Jindal’s governing style would give me cause for concern. Not Sarah Palin-level concern. Jindal can surely recall the names of a couple of newspapers should Katie Couric inquire about his reading habits.

But Romney’s advisors, if they take time to examine Jindal’s avoidance of the home-state press – not to mention his own constituents – may well conclude that Jindal isn’t in proper shape to play in the big leagues.

To use a sports analogy, during his political batting practice, Jindal has been hitting only softballs – not fastballs, high and tight. If the time should come that Jindal would be required to debate Joe Biden or spar with NBC’s David Gregory in the heat of a presidential campaign, one must wonder if Jindal’s reflexes might be a bit slow.

Given that the GOP has, in its nominee, someone averse to talking to the press and also fairly awkward in most personal interactions, it could be that Romney’s advisors will push hard to recruit someone more at ease with people and the press. If that is the standard – and it may well not be – then Jindal would not be high on Romney’s list.

But Jindal isn’t likely to be Romney’s running mate, for reasons I explain in the blog post at this link. Jindal will likely return from Tampa later this month facing the boring and depressing prospect of three more years hanging around Baton Rouge, something he clearly does not enjoy.

Should Romney choose someone else for vice president, high on the list of Jindal’s concerns will likely be his exit strategy, which could be a cabinet post should Romney win or, if Obama wins, a U.S. Senate seat in 2014.

High on the list of the concerns of Louisiana’s long-suffering citizens, however, will be their desire for a governor who shows up for work each day, fully dedicated to their well-being, fully committed to the job of governor.

Do you know anyone – anyone – who really believes that there is someone fitting that description with the last name of Jindal?

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4 Responses to Man at work? Jindal and the endless campaign for vice president

  1. m.a.s. says:

    atta way, Bob!

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  2. Ken Stickney says:

    Bob: I brought this issue up with him in 2007, when he was running for governor. His “power” ranking in Congress had dropped to, I believe, 424, which I I asked about at an editorial board meeting. His response: He had been running for governor. My response: But you already have a job: congressman, which people elected you to do. They did not elect you to hang around Louisiana and run for governor. He has a nice smile when he answers such questions, and assured me that he could do more for the people of his district and state as governor. So taxpayers paid him to run for another office.

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