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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Path Not Taken: McCain-Jindal

There’s a pretty robust left-right blogospheric debate that’s been underway for the last week–probably in the desperate hope of finding something to talk about other than Obama-McCain polling data–about the 2012 prospects of one Bobby Jindal, Governor of the Gret Stet of Loosiana (phonetic spelling).
It began as something of an intramural debate at The New Republic, wherein Suzy Khimm suggested that Jindal might be a formidable GOP candidate–perhaps even the “Republican Obama”–in 2012, while Chris Orr riposted that the race-baiting fundamentals of the McCain-Palin campaign would poison the well for a Republican as dark-skinned and “foreign” as Bobby.
A variety of conservatives joined the debate, most notably the estimable Ross Douthat, who responded to Orr as follows:

I think this vastly, vastly overestimates the extent to which the attempt to “Otherize” Obama has been about race qua race (and racism qua racism), and vastly underestimates the extent to which it’s been about the way Obama’s name, ancestry and skin color have dovetailed with other aspects of his background – from his liberation-theology church to the academic-lefty and urban-machine milieu in which he spent much of his early political career – that the GOP would have tried to play up against any Democratic candidate (and especially in a year when the party didn’t have much else going for it)

In other words, the GOP ticket’s appeal to racist sentiments is very real, but draws much of its power from a narrative that allows voters to combine racism with other, more ideological, motives.
Count me as on Ross’ side in the Douthat-Orr debate. Conservatives don’t like to think of themselves as racist (many, including most conservative intellectuals, actually aren’t) and that’s why they avidly welcome candidates who may be heterogeneous racially or ethnically, but are homogenous in terms of ideology and cultural identification. Had Colin Powell or Condi Rice proved to be reliable on hot-button issues like abortion, affirmative action, and preemptive war, they’d have been elevated to a national GOP ticket by now.
Daniel Larison at The American Conservative gets at this impulse very directly:

[N]ever underestimate the Republican desire to get on the high horse of anti-racism and egalitarianism, to say nothing of the even greater desire to demonstrate that they are in no way racist….
This is partly opportunistic, but it is also partly very serious. The small cottage industry out there cataloguing the “real racism” of liberals represents a genuine conviction in the modern GOP that they are the only true defenders of color-blind equality. The Republican obsession with Jeremiah Wright cannot be understood apart from this “fight the real racists!” mentality. The enthusiastic reception of Palin and the sudden willingness to label any criticism of her as sexism and elitism reflects a similar impulse to out-egalitarian the egalitarians. This is opportunistic insofar as it is aimed at confusing conventional definitions and throwing the opponent off guard (”we’re the real feminists, so there!”), but it is quite serious in that reflects a widely-held Republican belief that their agenda and their party represent ”empowerment” for women and minorities.

This is pretty much the same impulse that has led Democrats to favor southern white male candidates over the years, though not this year. If you can get someone who personally represents the other party’s base to stand for your own party’s ideological line, that’s great, not just in terms of the direct appeal to voters “like them,” but because it breaks all the stereotypes, and actually enables you to criticize your own candidate’s demographic group on non-demographic grounds.
When it comes to Bobby Jindal, it’s important to understand that he’s not simply acceptable, as Powell and Rice never were, to the “conservative base,” but is wildly popular among movement conservatives. As I noted way back in February, Jindal was the plurality winner of a National Review reader poll for McCain’s running-mate.
And that gets us back to a more immediate question than that of Bobby Jindal’s hypothetical prospects in 2012 or 2016: what if John McCain had chosen Jindal rather than Palin as his running-mate?
Jindal more than Palin figured prominently in early speculation about a “Hail Mary” McCain running-mate. And the main rap on Bobby was that his youth and inexperience would undercut the fundamental McCain effort to contrast his experience with Obama’s. But the Hail Mary was thrown, and compared to Palin, Jindal is a greybeard. It does make you wonder about the Path Not Taken. Jindal would clearly have commanded as strong a level of support from conservative “base” elements as Palin, maybe even more. He would have been more credible than Palin as a “conservative maverick,” and would also have been able to provide a convincing anti-Bush but not anti-conservative take on incidents like Katrina. Without question, he would have had no problem with media interviews like the Katie Couric fiasco for Palin. He would have done at least as well as Palin in the debate with Biden. Nobody on Saturday Night Live would have been able to parody him.
And personally, I think Jindal would have been able to reinforce, not neutralize, quasi-racist and quasi-nativist assaults on Obama. Conservative voters looking at Jindal would have been able to say: See, that’s how those people should behave.
In retrospect, it’s increasingly clear that the Palin selection was all about the illusion that a female Veep candidate acceptable to the Right could attract disgruntled HRC voters. Hasn’t worked out that way, at all.
If Obama waxes McCain next Tuesday, I think conservative efforts to find a non-WASP vehicle for their anti-Obama crusade will only increase. And Bobby Jindal will be very available for that role.

One comment on “The Path Not Taken: McCain-Jindal

  1. James Vega on

    When you say that you think Jindal “would have commanded as strong a level of support from conservative base elements as Palin, maybe even more” I think you are unconsciously thinking of the kinds of conservatives who go to the Conservative Political Action Council Meetings rather then the more visceral worthies who howl and froth at Sarah Palin’s rallies.
    Jindal is only a rock star in suit and tie conservative land. He would not have generated even a fraction of the enthusiasm Palin did with the hard-ass Republican base who were looking for a “Real dad-gum 100% American.” Jindal comes from the National Review, Palin comes from central casting.


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