Rush Limbaugh referred to him as “the next Ronald Reagan.” Newt Gingrich called him “far and away” the best possible running mate for John McCain. And Michelle Malkin has gone so far as to label him the “future of the GOP.”
Republicans are now desperately seeking their own Barack Obama—someone bold and transformative to re-energize the party after a devastating loss—and a lot of them are pinning their hopes on Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
The one snag, though, is that Jindal reportedly declared at a news conference last month that he isn’t interested in running for president in 2012. The reason? He wants to focus on the people of Louisiana and his gubernatorial re-election campaign in 2011.
Hmmm? Really? Jindal sure is getting a lot of press for someone who isn’t campaigning, and we know how that story goes. It seems Jindal had little choice but to say “no” for now. After all, last I checked it’s only 2009. Committing to anything three years in advance is tough, let alone the stewardship of the free world.
In November, shortly after Obama’s victory, Jindal delivered the keynote speech at a fundraiser for the Iowa Family Policy Center—a high-profile event for Christian conservatives in a high-stakes electoral state. Some see the speech as calculated maneuvering with an eye to 2012.
Of course, Jindal’s denial set the media clamoring: Could it be Jindal protests too much? Does his denial actually place him in the ranks of serious political contenders who need to carefully balance getting re-elected with launching a presidential bid? Or maybe he means it?
But there’s one question that isn’t coming up that seems central here—whether or not Jindal runs, would Republicans even be talking about a possible Indian-American presidential candidate if it weren’t for Barack Obama?
Like Obama, Jindal also grew up as a “skinny guy with a funny name.” He changed his name from Piyush to Bobby as a child and converted from Hinduism to Christianity as a teenager. And not unlike the questions around Obama’s “blackness,” the Indian-American community wonders, “Is Bobby Jindal Indian enough?”
There are major flaws in the argument that the GOP needs Jindal to challenge Obama. A lot can change in four years. And the assumption that like performs best against like—that Jindal is the best choice to run against Obama simply because of their similarities—is especially flawed reasoning, because at the core, the two men are very different.
Jindal is embraced by his party as a strong leader with conservative values. He supports teaching intelligent design in schools and opposes stem cell research. And unlike Obama, Jindal will not be able to count on his own ethnic community because most Indian Americans are registered Democrats. (Given their small numbers in America, it would not matter anyway.)
What does matter is that both men represent a changing tide in American politics—and the Republican Party knows it. During the 2008 campaign, Bob Schieffer of CBS News asked John McCain on Face the Nation, “How can you survive as a party if you become just the party of white people?” McCain’s answer? “We can’t.”
That explains why so many Republicans are getting behind the country’s youngest governor, born to Indian immigrants, so proactively. Obama’s the man to beat, and if a brown man can do it, a brown Republican, it would, in essence, make the GOP a party of “change,” too.
So, could Jindal, if he chooses, be a viable presidential candidate in 2012? Absolutely—but he will also only be 41, younger than Obama is now; and that will make him more susceptible to charges of inexperience and naïveté. It may be smarter for him to wait, but implicit in any debate around Jindal, is an acknowledgment that an Indian American can be president. That alone is a huge shift from just two years ago, when names like Romney, Clinton, Giuliani and Edwards dominated the scene.
From Barack to Piyush? Possibly. President Obama has completely rearranged the playing field and changed the way we think of politics.
Shiwani Srivastava is a Seattle-based freelance writer covering South Asian American cultural trends and community issues.