Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ross Douthat on Obama's Speech and Jindal's Response

From his Atlantic blog ("Snap Judgments"):

Obama was fantastic - worlds better than his inaugural. He laid out the most ambitious and expensive domestic agenda of any Democratic President since LBJ, and did it so smoothly that you'd think he was just selling an incremental center-left pragmatism. I think that he has an acute sense - more acute than most people in Washington, probably - of just how much running room is open in front of him at the moment, and he intends to make the absolute most of it. Burkean temperament or no, this was not a Burkean speech by any stretch: It was the speech of a man seeking to turn a moment of crisis into a domestic-policy revolution, and oozing confidence from every pore along the way. Now all he has to do is find a way to pay for it ...
And Jindal - yeah, he was just as lousy as everybody's saying. As far as themes and messaging went, he basically chose option A on Ambinder's list - government isn't the solution; pork is the problem; etc. - and embedded it in a weak, sing-song delivery that I suspect left even the people who respond favorably to that message cold. Sure, responding to a Presidential speech is almost always a thankless, hopeless job - but shouldn't someone as smart as Jindal have recognized that, and either turned the opportunity down flat, or found a way to sound like something other than a kindergarten teacher delivering familiar GOP talking points? In the event, his speech was the capstone on a lousy night for conservatism: If that's the best the Right has to offer as a rebuttal to Obama, American liberalism is going to be running untouched down the field for years to come.

Douthat's mostly on-target here. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms of the stimulus bill Obama recently signed -- e.g., that it won't provide enough stimulus when it's needed most, that many of its provisions aren't likely to be temporary and will strain the long term fiscal picture, etc. -- but dogmatically opposing fiscal stimulus during a long recession (especially when monetary policy has already taken the Fed funds rate to near-zero) is bad politics and bad economics. The smarter approach for Republicans in Congress would have been to demand a more effective stimulus -- one with more temporary, fast-acting measures (e.g., more aid for the unemployed, a payroll tax holiday, a temporary tax credit to encourage businesses to move up capital spending to this year, etc.).

On the other hand, on the longer-term policy objectives President Obama listed in his speech last night (e.g., free college for everyone, etc.), a good economic case (though a more difficult political one) can be made to oppose them, or to offer more fiscally sustainable alternatives.

Governor Jindal is a Rhodes Scholar who has had a meteoric political career so far, so he ought to be smart enough to realize this. He has time to reposition himself as a "effective government" conservative and differentiate himself from some of the Republican leaders in Congress by offering intelligent, nuanced opposition to President Obama's liberal policies. Jindal's rebuttal last night was an inauspicious start though1.

1One small example was Jindal's mockery of volcano monitoring in his rebuttal last night. As Matt Yglesias asked on his blog,

What’s with the attack on “something called ‘volcano monitoring’”? Volcano monitoring is where they monitor volcanos. So as to better understand, better predict, and better prepare for natural disasters. Is that so complicated? Are only hurricanes worth responding to?

If you're going to pick an example of wasteful government spending, volcano monitoring doesn't seem like the best one (not that Sen. McCain got much traction last fall with his jihad against pork -- which, in the big picture, has little impact on the federal budget anyway).


JK said...

I hadn't watched either Obama's speech or Jindal's response until today. Jindal was horrible. I have been impressed with some of the interviews he's given, but this speech of his was painful to sit through. He did have that sing-songy, condescending voice one uses with children, and every facial expression and hand movement looked contrived. The volcano monitoring was a big WTF moment also. I'd like my government to keep a very close eye on our domestic volcanoes, thank you very much!

I agree with you that he should position himself as an effective government conservative, some thing to learn from Romney's campaign, who missed that opportunity.

Anonymous said...

More GOP whining from Jindahl, with nothing new to offer. Lots of Republican platitudes and nothing new to offer. Just like the party. It was a painful speech to listen to.

DaveinHackensack said...

Good point about the parallels with Romney. You may be interested in this follow up post by Douthat, "The Other Jindal". Ross starts by quoting Michael Gerson on Jindal,

"At a recent meeting of conservative activists, Jindal had little to say about his traditional social views or compelling personal story. Instead, he uncorked a fluent, substantive rush of policy proposals and achievements, covering workforce development, biodiesel refineries, quality assurance centers, digital media, Medicare parts C and D, and state waivers to the CMS (whatever that is).

Some have compared Jindal to Obama, but the new president has always been more attracted to platitudes than to policy. Rush Limbaugh has anointed Jindal "the next Ronald Reagan." But Reagan enjoyed painting on a large ideological canvas. In person, Jindal's manner more closely resembles another recent president: Bill Clinton. Like Clinton (a fellow Rhodes scholar), Jindal has the ability to overwhelm any topic with facts and thoughtful arguments -- displaying a mastery of detail that encourages confidence. Both speak of complex policy issues with the world-changing intensity of a late-night dorm room discussion."

And then Ross adds,

"It's great that he can give a speech like that to conservative activists. Seriously. But it would be even better if he had given a speech like that - a speech that suggests that Republicans are capable of actually running government, as well as running against it - to the American people last night."

JK said...

Yeah, like I said I have been inpressed with the media interviews I've seen of him, he had a moderate temperment and thoughtful responses. I disagree with him on a lot but the initial impression I had was "that's a republican candidate I could live with". Maybe he is a better conversationalist than speech-giver..The unsubstantive partisan messages are clearly out of his element, he should not let himself get pressured into not being himself by the party.

Being knee-jerkingly partisan plays well to the base (Dem or Republican), but strident presidential candidates don't do well in national elections. Even John McCain took heat from his competitors duing the primary's "race to the right" over his past stances on immigration, earmarks, etc, but he held his ground (somewhat) and got nominated by average americans who tired of hot button issues. He couldn't overcome the massive headwinds though, especially since he was running against a young vibrant Dem candidate who wasn't catatonic like Kerry and Gore were. (Also his poor VP choice, IMO)

2012 will be interesting. Showdown between Palin, Romney, and Jindal? I predict Palin will fizzle out quickly, but will Romney treat Jindall with kid gloves or go hard on him like he did with McCain? Unlike McCain, Jindal has the support of a lot of influential Repub talking heads (Limbaugh), so he would be a tougher target than McCain to bash. Therefore he shouldn't let himself get caught up in the race to the right that Palin and any fringe candidates will probably instigate.

If the Repubs want to come back then they need to do what they did in the 90s and up to the War in Iraq so well, and that is framing the arguments. Remember how frustrated Dems got trying to argue about the "Death Tax". As long as it was called that, you couldn't do it! But so far they are keeping worn old frames that don't fit anymore. The Obama team has out-branded them. I think it may take a young, coastal republican with a great advertising team to bring the party back. Haven't seen him yet.

DaveinHackensack said...

Ross linked to an interesting piece by Daniel Larison ("Do Republicans Know That The Election Is Over") who speculates that one reason Jindal's speech was so bad was that it was essentially the RNC speech he never got to give (because of Hurricane Gustav) with some minor tweaks. Makes sense when you think about it -- that's the sort of preaching-to-the-choir speech often given at conventions.

The most impressive thing about Jindal is that he's actually accomplished stuff (e.g., reforming Louisiana Medicaid program, successfully evacuating almost everyone before Hurricane Gustav, etc.). Another leg up in commodities would be a nice tail wind for him, since that will make LA's coffers flush with oil & gas royalties.

Limbaugh does like Jindal, and was defending him today, but Jindal needs to be his own man -- not deliberately give the finger to the party like McCain, but follow his intellect and pursue smart policies. If he does that, he'll still have Limbaugh's support when he needs it. If he wants to mimic Eric Cantor that's the road to nowhere.

WRT Obama, he's shown he's great at political theater so far, but now that he's actually running stuff, he's going to be held responsible for things. I don't know if he actually believes what he said last night or he's just blowing smoke, but there's no way to enact the liberal wish list while controlling the deficit by just raising taxes on the rich. That won't generate enough revenue, and if decides to abandon his deficit reduction goals the bond market won't be giving him blank checks. We'll see what happens though.

JK said...

To draw another comparison to fellow Rhodes Scholar Clinton, this cnn article notes that Bill Clinton was widely panned for his 1988 convention speech. If that speech really was intended for the convention then hey, things might be looking up for him if he follows the Clinton trajectory. He may have a high book IQ -like Romney- but Republicans should hope that he has a (Bill) Clintonesque political IQ to match -unlike Romney. Running as a Republican for governor in Louisiana is a world apart from running nationwide.

The cross-aisle comparisons don't end there. Howard Fineman of MSNBC compared Obama's "hope over budget reality" to Ronald Reagan in 1981.