Christie and Jindal: The Race to Rebrand the GOP (And Themselves)

In the months following the disastrous November elections, the Republican Party has engaged in a great deal of public debate and internally directed criticism in an effort to identify what went wrong and how to redirect party efforts so that they may regain the initiative. A schism between the Tea Party and the establishment wing of the GOP, always hovering just beneath the surface, erupted into a near civil war, with intra-party conflict peaking during the Fiscal Cliff crisis. The GOP Senate members defected en masse from the position held by the Tea Party and voted with Democrats to pass the tax portion of the legislation necessary to resolve the Fiscal Cliff impasse. Enraged Republican House members accused their fellow conservatives of, among other things, being intoxicated while conducting the vote. The Senate bill barely passed the House, with just enough GOP votes crossing the aisle to avoid yet another self-inflicted fiscal catastrophe. Adding further acrimony to the situation was the failure of the House to even vote upon a disaster relief bill necessary to provide funds to assist victims of Superstorm Sandy. The near vanished northeastern wing of the GOP party was apoplectic, with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie leading the verbal assault on members of his own party leadership, castigating them for their refusal to act when many of his state’s citizens were struggling through the storm’s after effects.

Rebranding the GOPThis was not the first time Governor Christie had publicly diverged from positions and beliefs held by the base of his own party, nor would it be the last.  In the days and weeks following the Sandy disaster, Christie was effusive in his praise of President Obama.  The timing of the storm and the strong leadership displayed by the president, leadership publicly endorsed by such a high-profile GOP figure as Christie, could not have come at a worse time for the Republican Party. Their candidate for president, Mitt Romney, was in the final days of his campaign in what had long been predicted to be a tightly contested race. President Obama’s firm handling of the storm was no doubt beneficial to his reelection efforts. Governor Christie’s unequivocal vocal approval for the President’s actions certainly did nothing to harm the President’s chances in November either. The election proved not to be a near run thing after all, as a landslide Electoral College victory for Obama ensued. A number of high-profile Republican’s were extremely critical of Christie’s comments, with one, Dick Morris, going so far as to argue that Christie cost Romney the election. An implausible assertion to be sure but one that illustrates the tightrope that Christie is walking with the base of his own party as he attempts to do what’s best for his state and his reelection efforts as governor while simultaneously positioning himself as a potential 2016 presidential candidate.

Christie has engaged in numerous other forays onto potentially dangerous political ground during his tenure as governor. While personally pro-life, he has refused to make abortion a significant part of his platform.  Instead he has advocated that the state of New Jersey make its own decision through a public referendum.  He has been publicly skeptical of the war on drugs, declaring it “a failure”. When accused by some members of the far right of promoting Sharia law by nominating a Muslim to the New Jersey Supreme Court, he struck back by declaring himself “tired of dealing with the crazies” while refusing to reconsider his decision.  In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre Christie, already on record as being open to more gun control, sharply criticized an NRA ad featuring President Obama’s children. This earned him the scorn of Rand Paul and no doubt the enmity of the National Rifle Association. The former may be of little consequence, the latter is no trifling matter. Few politicians have taken on the NRA and survived unscathed. If Christie is considering a 2016 run at a presidential nomination he risks infuriating the same groups that would be funding such an effort and the same people whose votes he would be courting.

Christie and Jindal

Christie and Jindal

Chris Christie is not the only prominent Republican governor who appears to have gone maverick since the November election. Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana, has also been vociferous in his criticism of the party leadership in general and the flawed candidacies of several Republican nominees in particular. His recent speech at the annual GOP winter meeting held in Charlotte, North Carolina, featured several quote-worthy moments, most notably when he demanded that Republicans “stop being the stupid party”. His reference was clearly aimed at some of the more controversial candidates the party had put up for election in November whose mind-numbingly ignorant commentary on rape did much to hurt the GOP brand and the Romney presidential run. He extended his criticism to the party apparatus as well, finding fault with what he felt was too great of a focus upon budget cutting and not enough on being the party of economic growth. The national press, both liberal and conservative, hailed his rhetorical efforts, characterizing it as being just what the GOP requires, a push forward on the desperate need for the party to appeal to a much broader demographic.  Appearances, however, can be deceiving, as unlike Christie, what Jindal says is often greatly at odds with his actual policy positions.

A recent proposal to overhaul the Louisiana state tax system highlights this contrast. In his speech Jindal cast a wide net, attempting to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party beyond that of its current primarily white, wealthy and evangelical base. This particular legislative agenda, however, would serve the interests of the current base and the current base alone.  The plan as currently outlined intends to eliminate the Louisiana state tax on both individuals and corporations and replace the loss of revenue through a dramatic increase in the current sales tax levels. State taxes are progressive; the more you earn, the more you pay. Sales taxes are regressive; the impact of such an increase would be felt the most by the poor.  The wealthy would benefit while the poor would suffer; this is the same highly problematic approach employed by Romney that backfired so spectacularly on the GOP last November. The only difference is that instead of cutting taxes and replacing the revenue through spending cuts, Republicans are instead changing who bears the brunt of the taxes. Continuing to alienate a demographic they have long scorned is only part of the problem with this plan. Research conducted by the Tax Policy Center has concluded that the proposal would also likely slow or even halt economic growth in the state.  It would compel people to save, not spend. Those consumers looking to purchase big-ticket items like automobiles would shift the focus of their search out of state in order to avoid the onerous Louisiana state tax levels. Consumer spending comprises approximately 70% of our national GDP; this bill would discourage, not encourage, such spending, never a good idea in difficult economic times such as these.

The tax plan is only the latest in a series of highly conservative, anti-populist and heavy-handed measures that Governor Jindal has either implemented or proposed.  He has cut funding to battered women’s shelter programs, higher education and preschool programs. His intention to cut Medicaid funding for hospice care was reversed only as a result of national outrage engendered by the decision.  The reversal came on the eve of his keynote speech in Charlotte; such correlation was hardly coincidental considering his highly critical assessment of the national party’s focus on budget cutting. Governor Jindal appears to want to have it both ways; he wants to appeal to a broader demographic base by characterizing the GOP policy agenda as flawed, while simultaneously pandering to the current base by implementing the same budget cutting, poor bashing legislation the national party advocates. Call Governor Christie bombastic and self-serving if you will, but at least he’s real. Jindal comes across as a smooth talking snake oil huckster, more than willing to take advantage of those foolish enough to trust what comes out of his mouth.

Unfortunately for the GOP, and the country, Jindal’s approach appears to be a more effective one in the context of running for national office. No less a party luminary than Karl Rove recently stated his belief that Jindal could be a serious candidate for higher office during a recent speech given by the former Bush ’43 staffer. Few have stepped forward to criticize Jindal for his attack on the GOP leadership; indeed he has been almost universally lauded for his commentary. Christie, meanwhile, has incurred the wrath and enmity of some very powerful factions within the GOP, most notably the NRA and the Tea Party wing of the United States House of Representatives. Jindal is clearly aiming for a 2016 presidential run. It remains to be seen what Christie’s intentions are. Perhaps he too will run for president in four years. If so, his strategy of appealing to the moderates of his own party as well as independents, many of whom voted Democrat in the most recent election, could serve him well, but only if the influence of the Tea Party continues to wane. The outcome of the ongoing internal struggle in the GOP for control over the party agenda will do much to inform which of the two politicians has chosen the appropriate long-term strategy.