In Arizona this weekend, Republican presidential nominee John McCain will entertain three politicians—Florida governor Charlie Crist, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal—reportedly to consider each as a running mate. If McCain makes an offer to Jindal, it will probably be difficult to resist. But if McCain wants to help Louisiana recover from Hurricane Katrina, he’ll leave its new governor where he is. Jindal’s state needs him more than the nation does.
It’s easy to see why McCain would consider Jindal. When the 36-year-old governor came to office earlier this year, he already had an impressive record of accomplishment. As a twentysomething in former governor Mike Foster’s cabinet in the 1990s, Jindal reorganized the state’s Medicaid plan, cutting costs and transforming deficits into surpluses. He then served ably in Congress. In his first few months as governor, he has shepherded ethics reforms through the state legislature and started working on an income-tax cut and an infrastructure-investment plan. Jindal is an attractive candidate in political terms, too: he’s young (barely half McCain’s age), and he’s the son of Indian immigrants, a factor for McCain to consider as he prepares to run against either the first black or first female Democratic presidential candidate.
There’s another strong political argument for choosing Jindal: McCain may realize more than other Republicans how much Hurricane Katrina has hurt Republicans in the South, and seek to counter that weakness with a Southern running mate. It’s no coincidence that two of the GOP’s recent “safe seat” losses took place in Mississippi and Louisiana. Residents of those states may understand that some of their local and state leaders failed them during and after the storm, but that doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten President Bush’s abysmal performance. Two decades ago, Bush’s father planted the seeds of his political demise in New Orleans’s Superdome, when he made his infamous, soon-to-be-broken “no new taxes” pledge. Bush the Younger saw his own domestic legacy disintegrate in the chaos of the post-Katrina Superdome—and may have lost the GOP’s solid Southern majority in the process.
Some conservative Christians, fairly or not, also viewed the president’s slow response as something worse than a failure to grasp the scope of an unprecedented catastrophe. Particularly for that first long week after Katrina hit, Bush’s response seemed not just incompetent but uncompassionate. That perception has taken hold, though national Republicans have been slow to understand it—except, perhaps, McCain, who went out of his way a few weeks ago to criticize the White House’s post-Katrina effort.
But whatever political and executive benefits Jindal might bring the ticket, Louisiana still needs him more than McCain does. The governor is the first competent chief executive Louisiana has had in recent memory, and he’s only begun his work. The state’s physical infrastructure is still subpar: just this week, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that “leaky levees” were “alarming experts.” The city of New Orleans, while making some progress in its physical recovery, remains dangerously fragile; its newly returning residents may yet decide to flee its crime-ridden streets. While New Orleans needs a good mayor to address that problem, the governor can help by using state money as a lever to start reforming the city’s criminal-justice system. And despite some progress in fixing its worst-performing school districts, including in New Orleans, Louisiana’s work here is nowhere near done.
As for Jindal’s political future: if he wants to be vice president someday, he shouldn’t worry that this opportunity will be his last. As the nation watches Louisiana recover from Katrina, Jindal has a prominent stage on which to show that Republicans can govern competently, even as other stars in the party—including California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger—struggle to keep their promises. Four or eight years from now, Jindal will still be a young man. By then, if he’s done his job well in Louisiana, he’ll be able to point to his solid, permanent achievements as governor—and even, perhaps, skip the veep step and try for the top spot instead.