Last week, the hot contender for the 2016 Republican Presidential ticket was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, fresh from a resounding off-year re-election bid. But waiting in the wings are two other ambitious GOP governors – both from the south and with roots in South Asia: Bobby Jindal (Louisiana) and Nikki Haley (South Carolina). Do they have a shot at the top or second slot on the ticket?
First, let’s set the stage and take it as assumed that Christie would settle for no less than a presidential nomination. At this point it’s hard to imagine him squeezing his outsized personality into an ‘I’m-just-glad-to-be-here-supporting-[fill in the blank]’ role. Whether he wins the nomination or not is another story.
Now let’s look at Bobby Jindal, the more senior politico (twice-elected governor, elected for several terms to the U.S. House of Representatives). The son of immigrants from India, he’s highly intelligent and perceptive -- choosing to call himself ‘Bobby’ after his favorite character on the Brady Bunch, in place of his given name, Piyush.
As far as fitting in on a Louisiana schoolyard, he made a great choice, but in 2016, having a ‘President Bobby’ (we once had a ‘President Jimmy,’ remember?) might be tough to swallow. Yes, I know in the South grown men of substance may honorably go by the name of Bobby, but it could be a tough sell in, say, New Hampshire.
On the other hand, he is making a name for himself as an ‘education governor’ with his aggressive use of vouchers for 8,000 poor children -- who literally had few functional schools to attend in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This has brought him into direct confrontation with President Barack Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, as Holder has said Jindal’s voucher program is incompatible with a 1975 desegregation order -- and that fight continues today.
Plus, Jindal’s been hanging tough on the Affordable Care Act, stating recently that “We will not allow President Obama to bully Louisiana into accepting an expansion of Obamacare,” and calling its dysfunctional website “the tip of the iceberg in regards to problems with this law.”
But most recently and more troubling, he’s been chided for his leadership of the Republican Governors Association (RGA). Specifically, after last week’s defeat at the polls, operatives working for Ken Cuccinelli’s Virginia gubernatorial race pointed fingers at Jindal for failing to spend much money in Virginia (claiming money spent supporting Christie was wasted because he was winning anyway), and the ads ran by the RGA for Cuccinelli were useless.
Lastly, I personally think Jindal’s got a Paul-Ryan-like problem: he’s never had a lousy hamburger-flipper job (he popped out of the Ivy League straight into a high-flyer consultant’s job and kept zooming right into the governor’s mansion). This means he can’t personally relate to struggling families -- the missing human touch that’s oddly so important in a national election. People need to feel that they can relate to their candidate. This is just my guess, but I think Jindal’s hard to warm up to.
Fortunately, that’s not South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s problem. Not only does she have the mandatory dazzling smile with an open, friendly manner, she has personal magnetism and a family story that goes to the heart of Middle America. Her husband, Michael, is on his second deployment to Afghanistan this year, as part of his South Carolina National Guard Service. While her husband’s overseas, she’s running the state and caring for their two children (ages 12 and 15).
In a state with a strong record of citizens in military service, Governor Haley’s dual role as military wife certainly resonates with ordinary South Carolinians.
In her first term as governor (up for re-election next year) she has been a tireless booster for jobs in South Carolina. On a visit there last year, I was struck by the seemingly ever-expanding industrial parks along the highway. It was a stark contrast to the long-shuttered, huge, empty Saturn car plant just a few miles from my home in Delaware.
But a booster is not a leader. Unlike Jindal, Haley has not made her mark on any policy issues, or (as far as I know) used her state as a laboratory for any innovative/cost-saving social programs. Thus, at a distance, she might be an attractive Vice Presidential nominee, but I think it’s too soon. Perhaps she needs a second term to build her reputation in a policy area. It would help squelch any concerns that she was following in Sarah Palin’s glittery footsteps.
One final note: both Jindal and Haley are fabulous examples of the American dream – as well as the importance of heretofore ‘hidden’ minorities, such as South Asians. They represent the changing face of America, but they are to be commended for not making a big deal about it. Theirs is an honorable and thoroughly American approach.
They are also young – with the gift of time to strengthen and polish their profiles for perhaps a larger, national stage. Jindal and Haley will be worth watching in the years to come.