Not long after Barack Obama delivers his pseudo–State of the Union on February 24, the official televised Republican riposte will be uncorked by a guy who violates almost every prevailing liberal stereotype of the contemporary GOP: the governor of Louisiana, Piyush “Bobby” Jindal. At 37, Jindal is the nation’s youngest governor and the first Indian-American to win statewide office in U.S. history. The son of Punjabi immigrants, he’s an Ivy League–educated Rhodes scholar and an unrepentant policy wonk, with heterodox views on his specialty, which is health care, and a reputation for competence as much as ideology. For all these reasons and others, Jindal strikes many savvy conservatives as the answer to their party’s prayers: a brainy, precocious, multiculti change agent—a Republican Obama.
Precious few have ever described Michael Steele quite that way, though his recent rise to national prominence is hard to imagine outside the context of our new president. The victory of Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor and failed Senate candidate, in the contest to become chairman of the Republican National Committee came as a surprise; he’d often been criticized as insufficiently far right to win. But against a field that included an incumbent Bush holdover, a southern party operative who until recently belonged to an all-white country club, and the genius who sent out that infamous Christmas CD with the song “Barack the Magic Negro,” Steele emerged as the first African-American head of the RNC—having argued that he offered a solution to what he called the party’s “image problem.”
That the GOP would seek to address that dilemma by presenting a new face (or faces) is unsurprising. That it’s attempting to do so by placing front and center two of the few brown or black dudes in its upper echelon can be read as a laudable act of modernization—or as an amusing, faintly desperate bit of tokenism. (You make the call!) Either way, however, the gambit leaves unaddressed the much wider and deeper challenge confronting the Republicans: not the installation of new faces but the conception, adoption, and propagation of compelling new ideas.
Not that the other problem—the perception that the GOP is increasingly an exclusionary, antediluvian assemblage dominated by older, southern white men—isn’t real and damaging enough. A glance at last November’s election returns makes that abundantly clear. In his battle with John McCain, Obama won among women by 13 points; among Hispanics by 36; among young voters by 34 and new voters by 39; and, of course, among blacks by 91. The potency of that minorities-plus-young-whites coalition is near impossible to overstate. It’s not just potentially the bedrock of a durable Democratic majority. It’s the nation’s demographic destiny.
For Republicans, therefore, credibly contending for the allegiance of those voting blocs is a matter of survival. Thus the appeal of characters such as Jindal and Steele, a pair of pols who, as the GOP consultant Alex Castellanos (who has worked for the former) puts it, “look like the future.”
This appearance, unfortunately, stands them in stark contrast to the rest of the party’s national leadership. A quick pop quiz: How many Republican members of Congress, in both the Senate and the House, are African-American? Answer: None. How many non-Cuban Hispanics are there in the upper and lower chambers? Zilch again. (The Cuban-Americans number four, all from South Florida.) How many Asian-Americans? One. For the record, the country is now one-third minority and on its way to becoming majority-minority, in 2042. The Republican Party’s congressional cadre? Nearly 98 percent Caucasian.
Castellanos, among others, points out that Beltway Republicanism does not the party make. “One of the costs of the past eight years is that nothing new grew in the shade of the big tree that was George W. Bush,” he says. “And now that tree has fallen and we’re seeing a new, more diverse, but no less conservative Republican Party spring up around the country. And we haven’t seen it bear fruit in Washington yet, but in time, we will.”
Republicans had better hope that it happens quickly—because even beyond the matter of its lily-whiteness, in the first month of the Obama era, the party has looked badly out of step with the electorate. On this point, I’ll confess, more than a few august members of the GOP cognoscenti take adamant exception. They argue that in its tooth-and-nail opposition to the Democratic stimulus package, the party found its footing, found its voice, found its raison d’être. The Republicans are “reenergized,” wrote Karl Rove in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. They “play[ed] their hand extraordinarily well,” employing “the stimulus to redefine their party,” their leaders looking “gracious” and “impressive” while inflicting “a high price—fiscally and politically” on Obama and the congressional Democrats.
The brio of the Rovester is impressive as always, especially in the face of the ample evidence that undercuts his every assertion. Though support for the stimulus did indeed slip during its gestation, it still wound up over 50 percent. The price to Obama is undetectable: His approval ratings remain sky-high. Meanwhile, according to polling by Research 2000, the public’s view of congressional Democrats is on the (albeit slight) rise. But its opinion of the congressional GOP is plunging rapidly from an already dismal baseline: Since the start of the year, its net favorable/unfavorable ratings have fallen from -40 to -52; those of House Republican leader John Boehner and his Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, have each dropped by eleven points.
Like their congressional brethren, Jindal and Steele were loud opponents of the stimulus. In the case of the Republican Party’s new chief, that opposition took the form of arguments that weren’t just specious but spectacularly moronic: “In the history of mankind and womankind,” Steele declared, “government—federal, state, or local—has never created one job.” (In fact, about 15 percent of the labor force is employed by the government.) Jindal, for his part, first decried the stimulus on the grounds that it would balloon the federal deficit, then said he might turn down part or all of the roughly $4 billion slated to come Louisiana’s way because of unspecified “strings” that might be attached. Jindal’s motivations are open to question—all other governors adopting his position are, like him, mulling a White House bid in 2012—but his position isn’t insane on its face. But for a governor facing a $1.7 billion budget shortfall for next year, the sheer irresponsibility of it is fairly staggering.
The stimulus debate is history now, of course, so maybe it would be better to judge Steele and Jindal on the basis of their visions of how to resurrect their party. For Steele, apparently, that means focusing less on policy than on outreach—though the signals he’s sent so far in both areas are less than encouraging. Within days of winning the chairman’s post, he quietly scrapped an ambitious plan to create an in-house RNC think tank known as the Center for Republican Renewal, the purpose of which, according to an internal party memo, was “to develop principled solutions rather than falling back on ideology alone.” Instead, as Steele told the Washington Times, he intends to launch an “off the hook” rebranding effort to appeal to young black and Hispanic voters in “urban-suburban hip-hop settings.” “We need to uptick our image with everyone,” he continued, “including one-armed midgets.”
Progress, ho! (Or should I say, Progress, yo!)
Jindal is orders of magnitude more estimable than Steele. Though he’s been in office just over a year, he’s been swift off the mark: handling Hurricane Gustav smoothly, passing an impressive package of ethics reforms, overhauling the state’s worker-training program, and introducing a Medicaid-reform plan that’s garnered respectful notices from progressive health-care wonks such as Ezra Klein. Last year, when Jindal was informed by John McCain’s campaign that he was being considered to be McCain’s running mate, the governor pulled his name from contention, citing his desire to serve out his term—while his allies leaked word that the real reason was his fear of being tangled up in a plainly doomstruck campaign. No dummy, he.
Yet, in other respects, Jindal is a standard-issue conservative. His economic views are highly orthodox: tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts. And his social views are hard right in extreme. Raised in a Hindu household, he converted to Catholicism in his teens and embraced a particularly strict version of the creed. He is anti-abortion even in cases of rape, incest, or when the health of the mother is at stake and signed a bill allowing the teaching of intelligent design in Louisiana’s public schools. (“If I wanted the aesthetics without the inconvenient morality,” he once wrote, “I could become Episcopalian.”) No wonder no less than Rush Limbaugh hails him as “the next Ronald Reagan.”
Maybe it’s too much to expect that Jindal, at his tender age, would have a fully-formed, mold-breaking, conservatism-recasting and party-reinvigorating schema at the ready. And maybe it’s too early to judge Steele’s efforts to expand the appeal of the GOP geographically and demographically. Maybe both of them will develop into big-time forces in the cause of Republican reformation. (Though in Steele’s case, all of these maybes are so gargantuan you’d need a crane to lift them.)
For the moment, however, what they look likely mainly are window dressing for a party whose decline continues to accelerate at a head-snapping pace. More to the point, they look like answers to the wrong question. As the Obama epoch kicks into gear, the GOP has demonstrated no small degree of vigor, discipline, and oppositional force. What it hasn’t displayed is any capacity or inclination to advance a novel and coherent set of policies for a country deep in crisis. Without such a set of new ideas, the party will continue to flounder. And all the new faces in the world—even those that could have been lifted straight from an old Benetton ad—won’t make the picture any prettier.