Bobby Jindal's Challenge

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, CBS News' chief political consultant, previews Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's Republican response to President Obama's speech before Congress tonight.

(AP Photo/Bill Haber)
"Hi, I'm Bobby Jindal, the governor the great state of Louisiana."

[State direction: wait a beat. Flash megawatt smile.]

So far, so good.

Then it occurs to you, as it must have occurred to Jindal's speechwriters, that he is a Republican at a time when it is really, really difficult to be a Republican.

What happens at this juncture will determine how delicate and able a politician Mr. Jindal is.

He could make a standard Republican case against socialism, against creeping nationalization, against government, against spending, against liberalism. This would be an easy speech to write, an easier speech to deliver, and the easiest type of speech to dismiss.

The old arguments don't work; the language that Republicans use has been discredited. Moreover, President Obama is popular. The Democrats are popular. Most of the President's policies are popular.

The administration has successfully persuaded the American people that the economy won't begin to recover soon, that more pain is on the way, and that long-term recovery requires short term solutions that, just five years, would have been considered radical.

Or, he could thank Mr. Obama, and then put on his Louisiana ambassador hat; Jindal rarely grants interviews these days unless the main subject will be his state. Thanks to Jindal, there's a perception that Louisiana and good government are no longer mutually exclusive.

Or, he could thank Mr. Obama, and then move to talk about what Republican governors across "this great land" are doing to help Americans cope with the economic struggles.

He can talk about his own efforts in Louisiana; he can talk about Charlie Crist's health care reforms in Florida; he can talk about Gov. Jon Huntsman's programmatic budgeting and health insurance proposal in Utah; he can talk about Gov. Schwarzenegger's political reforms.

In other words, he could reestablish the idea of an idea meritocracy within the party and issue an implicit throwdown of sorts to other Republicans: this party ought to reward people who propose ideas to fix the country, and not politicians who get stuck in the base politics pander rut. He could even reward politicians who've challenged Republican orthodoxy.

Jindal may feel compelled to explain why he wants to refuse the government's expanded held for unemployment insurance. He says he's worried that it will saddle states with an unfunded burden two years hence, but even fellow federalistic budget hawks like Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina can't bear to refuse money for such direct stimulus.

Is Jindal trying to advance his political cause at the expense of Louisiana's poor? No, but it's not entirely clear why he's choosing to make an example out of unemployment insurance, of all things. It may be easier for him to discuss the perils of unfunded mandates generally.

There will be, and should be, constructive criticism of the president. The exigencies of crises do not erase the need for an opposition party, although Republicans have learn the art of taquete - tip-toe steps - rather than the regular partisan boot-stomping.

Realistically, he knows that the economic crisis and the government's response to it are both just beginning. The process has to unwind for a while, and predicting the future is next to impossible.

In general, his goals will be modest. I've seen Jindal up close -- one on one, he's compelling. As a formal speaker, he is not particularly charismatic. How he'll come off on camera is real question.

He's a measured, thoughtful and easy-going fellow, so he's not going to scintillate. Indeed, his temperament might be tonally correct for our times -- prudent, sober, but optimistic.

In the abstract, he needs to give the American people a reason to believe that an opposition party is necessary. More prosaically, he can begin a rewrite of the mathematical formulas that govern Republican Party politics. It's his choice.