Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Jindal, courage is not enough

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
updated 10:51 AM EST, Sat January 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal advocates that GOP reach out beyond base
  • John Avlon: Jindal is not dealing with the root of the problem, which is GOP policies
  • Saying GOP must stop being "the stupid party" is a diagnosis but not a prescription, Avlon says
  • Avlon: Confronting the impulse to pander to social conservative populists is necessary

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal rode into the Republican National Committee retreat in Charlotte, North Carolina, ready to offer a dose of tough medicine for the Republican Party, which he now says "must stop being the stupid party."

"The Republican Party does not need to change our principles," he said in a keynote speech, "but we might need to change just about everything else we do."

Ouch.

John Avlon
John Avlon

There's a problem with Jindal's prescription, however, rooted in an idea that Forrest Gump once articulated -- "stupid is as stupid does."

As the GOP enters a period of reassessment, it knows it desperately needs to reach out beyond its older white male conservative populist base. Jindal is an appealing symbol of that needed change -- a young Southern governor who is also an Indian American and former Rhodes scholar.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The GOP's problem in reaching out beyond its conservative base is not simply a matter of communication and tone. The problem is in the party's policies.

But because Jindal needs to keep the conservative base in his corner to mount a widely expected 2016 presidential campaign, he is restrained from really dealing with the root of the problem.

Some GOP-led states look at electoral vote changes

Jindal to GOP: Stop being the dumb party

Instead, his well-written speech -- presented as a refutation of President Barack Obama's second inaugural address -- was incomplete and dominated by many of the straw-man arguments he decried.

Defensively, Jindal assured his audience that his federalist vision of modernizing the Republican Party did not mean "moderating" its policies in any way.

"I am not one of those who believe we should moderate, equivocate or otherwise abandon our principles," Jindal said. "This badly disappoints many of the liberals in the national media, of course. For them, real change means: supporting abortion on demand without apology, abandoning traditional marriage between one man and one woman, embracing government growth as the key to American success, agreeing to higher taxes every year to pay for government expansion, and endorsing the enlightened policies of European socialism."

The tragicomic caricature does not describe what Democrats believe or what a centrist Republican might want. But the markers Jindal puts down means he is backing social conservative positions such as opposition to same-sex marriage and the call for a constitutional ban on abortion that is codified in the party platform.

Many voters -- especially members of the millennial generation -- consider these positions at odds with libertarians' professed belief in maximizing individual freedom, but the contradiction and resulting voter alienation is entirely sidestepped. Confronting it is politically inconvenient, if not impossible.

Not being the stupid party also means supporting science and the separation of church and state, at least to the extent that creationism is not taught in public schools. But Jindal has backed the teaching of creationism in Louisiana public schools in a pander to conservative populists. Physician, heal thyself.

When Jindal says, "We must not become the party of austerity. We must become the party of growth," he is arguing for a positive frame for the conservative message. But he is not actually questioning conservatives' call to cut federal spending and social programs dramatically, which could restrict growth and alienate efforts to appeal beyond the base. He's just saying the GOP should present the glass as half full.

I'm all for reinventing government and reducing bureaucracy dramatically -- as Jindal calls for -- but part of "talking to Americans like adults" -- involves talking about the real costs and consequences, not just reframing the debate.

Jindal rightly says, "We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. We've had enough of that." He's presumably referring to the self-destructed tea-evangelist Senate campaigns of Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin -- which alienated women and centrist voters with the candidates' tortured talk about rape, biology and abortion.

But the problem with those bizarre and offensive comments was rooted in the policies the Senate candidates were being asked to defend -- namely, their faith-based opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape. Unless, that policy is addressed, the problem will remain. Silence on the subject doesn't solving anything.

Analysis: Jindal lays down 2016 marker

Likewise, correcting the overwhelmingly white complexion of the conservative base will require more than just talking to everyone as individuals and rejecting identity politics. It will require backing policies such as comprehensive immigration reform -- as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have backed. Jindal stayed silent on the subject and substance.

There is a lot to admire in Jindal's speech -- first and foremost the courage it took to challenge his party in unvarnished terms so soon after a stinging election loss. He is right about the need to offer a compelling contrast rooted in radical simplification to decrease costs and increase efficiency. Jindal is correct in saying that Mitt Romney's failure was in large part his inability to move beyond simply criticizing Obama and offer a detailed positive policy alternative. But that failure was rooted in the fact that much of current conservative policy is broadly unpopular, a problem only compounded when the party becomes more polarized and dominated by the far-right debating society.

The demonization of Obama beyond all reason and reality only adds to the credibility gap that conservatives are now confronting. Most leading national Democrats -- whether it is Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton or John Kerry -- may be decidedly center-left, but they are basically pragmatic progressives, not the kind of fuming anti-American statists many conservatives imagine. Most Main Street Americans understand this, and hard-core conservatives look a bit dotty for insisting their overheated vision is rooted in reality.

There's one final contradiction between rhetoric and reality that's worth confronting. Jindal spent a lot of time in his speech slamming the "barren concrete" of Washington and the job of "managing government." But if Jindal runs for president -- as seems increasingly likely -- he'll be running for the privilege of living in that barren concrete jungle and managing the federal government. That's a basic part of the job description. Let's be honest: Jindal doesn't really hate the federal government; he wants to run it.

Jindal is courageous to call on his party to stop being "the stupid party." But that slogan and his speech is a diagnosis of the problem, not a prescription for fixing it. Confronting the impulse to pander to social conservative populists is necessary to fix "the stupid party." The problem is in the policy, not just political perception.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT