WASHINGTON – Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal took his presidential campaign-in-waiting to Washington on Monday trailed by an unwelcome, unsavory and downright unpleasant companion: his record.
The interloper followed the Louisiana Republican into the St. Regis Hotel and crashed his breakfast meeting with three dozen reporters, at which Jindal planned to make his case to do for America what he did for Louisiana.
Dave Cook of the Christian Science Monitor, the breakfast host, quickly acknowledged the presence of Jindal’s uninvited guest by pointing out that, for all of Jindal’s claims that he’s a champion of education, a study found that public universities in Louisiana had suffered the deepest cuts per student in the nation under Jindal.
The governor replied by talking about teacher salaries, taxes, state credit upgrades, the state payroll, private-sector job growth – just about everything other than what he had been asked about.
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Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics made another reference to Jindal’s unwanted but omnipresent sidekick by observing that he had taken the state from a billion-dollar surplus to a $1.6 billion budget deficit.
Jindal responded with a four-minute filibuster, repeating his points about the state payroll, credit upgrades and private-sector job growth. For good measure, he tossed in statistics about graduation rates, official ethics, population growth – even low-birth-weight babies spending less time in neonatal intensive-care units. “Great for those babies, great for taxpayers,” Jindal said.
It was the equivalent of a homeowner dismissing the significance of his foreclosure by noting that he had done a fine job tending the flower beds.
This is likely to be a problem for Jindal and several other Republican presidential hopefuls. Some of the party’s most promising candidates are governors or former governors running on their executive experience. But their experience isn’t always a good advertisement for the limited-government policies they promote.
There’s New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has seen his state’s credit rating downgraded eight times and who has presided over a state debt that reached a record-high $78 billion while unemployment is above the national average. Then there’s Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who led his state to a projected $2.2 billion deficit while Wisconsin’s wage and job growth sag below the national average. Indiana’s Mike Pence and Ohio’s John Kasich have more impressive stories to tell. Rick Perry presided over a big boom in Texas during his 14 years as governor, but his tenure has left him with other things, too, including an indictment. Former governors Jeb Bush of Florida and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas don’t have current records to sell.
Louisiana’s travails are particularly problematic because they have been caused in large part by Jindal’s tax cuts, which, along with declining oil revenue, blew such a hole in the state budget that even huge spending cuts haven’t made up the gap. In the last few days, articles in the New York Times and Politico have detailed Louisiana’s fiscal travails, including a possible 40 percent operating-budget cut at Louisiana State University and an increase in tuition at public universities of 90 percent during Jindal’s time in office. Jindal has already raided state reserve funds and resorted to the sort of budget gimmicks that he once criticized.
Jindal ate up the first 15 minutes of Monday’s hourlong breakfast with an extensive preamble about an education reform policy he is proposing for the nation. But his record quickly intruded. “Is there some irony in your talking about ramping up education while you’re cutting it in Louisiana?” Cook inquired.
The governor ignored the specific question – about Jindal’s cuts to per-student spending for higher ed being the deepest in the nation – and instead delivered a sermon that included a boast about “eight credit upgrades” for the state and the “strongest credit rating we’ve seen in decades.”
Unmentioned: That just last week, Moody’s issued a “credit negative” report on Louisiana and said its problems have been intensified by its reliance on $1 billion in temporary patchwork funding being used to prop up the budget this year.
Minutes later, when Simendinger asked Jindal to explain why the big state deficit “qualifies you to run for president,” the governor replied with a string of non-sequiturs.
“In New Orleans, 90 percent of our kids are in charter schools.”
“It used to take 10 days to get a prescription if you were uninsured in Baton Rouge, and now it takes 10 minutes.”
“In ethics rankings we were bottom five for legislative disclosure, and now we’re in the top five.”
A while later, he joked, “And that’s the short answer.”
No, governor, that’s a non-answer.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.