26 February 2009

Bobby Jindal

Please note that I have made some corrections to this entry based on new and in some cases “evolving” information.

Let’s talk seriously about the Republican “response” to President Obama’s Congressional address.

Let’s start by putting aside Mr. Jindal's speaking skills (listen, NOBODY compares to Obama in that department, Dem or Repub!) or his painfully stiff gait and “Mr Rogers” style delivery. Let’s completely ignore that he had to prepare this “response” not really knowing what President Obama was going to say, or particularly how well he was going to say it. Forget that Obama was even on, and instead just think of Jindal’s address as a party political broadcast from a leading figure of the Republicans, explaining their view of the present situation and their opposition to the recent stimulus bill.

Even looking at it purely divorced from Obama, the speech had, at its heart, some serious factual errors and completely unsupported premises that Republicans should be much more concerned about than the fact that their delivery seemed a bit tone-deaf.

For starters, I was particularly alarmed when Jindal not only dismissed “volcano monitoring” as something somehow silly and wasteful (wonder how he feels about hurricane monitoring?), but he claimed it was getting $140M. He is off by a factor of 10 (try $14 million).

If the Republican party is just going to sneer and snicker at all the stuff they don’t understand without making any attempt to understand why such funding or such programs exist, they are in bigger trouble than they can possibly imagine. Five minutes on “the Google” would have shown Gov. Jindal what a horrifically bad example he happened to pick.

He also specifically mentioned a fictional train from Disneyland to Las Vegas as the recipient of federal funds. Although it is true that the Bush administration floated and supported this idea, there are no real plans for one, no funds for one, and should someone decide that's a good idea after all, it would almost certainly be a private profit-making enterprise anyway -- since it’s purpose is to fleece tourists rather than serve any public need.

In other words, Governor Jindal couldn’t come up with a single factual objection to anything in the stimulus bill, which is for all intents and purposes comprises Obama’s entire record of  presidential accomplishment thus far. Nothing.

It also has become clear that he lied -- not misspoke, deliberately lied -- about the story involving himself and Sheriff Harry Lee. The incident referred to by Jindal flatly did not happen as he recounted it. For a start, it took place a week after Katrina. Secondly, Jindal was not present when Lee made his “yelling” phone call. Lee told Jindal about the incident after the fact, but Jindal claimed he was in the office with Lee at the time, which he said was “during Katrina” when it was not. Jindal knew this was not true when he said it.

He further skipped almost any mention of the various overseas escapades America is involved in, talking about foreign affairs and policy even less than Obama did. Obama’s speech was specifically about the economy, but Jindal had no such restriction. If he’s out there as a representative of the opposition, it would be nice to hear what the opposition actually thinks about something more than one particular bill. It would, if nothing else, give the public the impression that the Republicans are thinking beyond whatever they can object to on a day-by-day basis. A huge missed opportunity, in my view, particularly as it was the incompetence of foreign policy that cost the Republicans this election.

Any evidence that they’ve been doing some re-thinking on that point would have been welcomed. While he did admit that the Republicans “lost your trust, and rightly so,” he didn’t take that thought any further -- as in, showing us what they’ve learned (if anything), and how they might do it differently given another chance. Like, say, not lying so much.

Finally, his bizarre comment about the federal government’s poor response to the Katrina disaster as an example of why people should not “trust” government ignores the many thousands of previous disasters where FEMA and the government stepped in and helped in ways the private sector was unable to. Gov. Jindal does not appear to recall any disasters -- or the federal response to them -- prior to 9/11, but I assure him that overall, FEMA and other government agencies have done a pretty good job responding to disasters and other civil emergencies. FEMA’s poor response to Katrina was an exception, not the rule -- as anyone older than Katrina would be able to tell you.

What caused the catastrophic failure of Katrina was incredibly poor management from the top -- starting with the president, who was partying with John McCain the day Katrina hit (literally!) and on down to the FEMA director at the time, who I’m constantly surprised to say is still alive and free to walk the streets.

In picking such an insane and empty argument on which to rest his entire premise -- government is no good for people, which is why Republicans should be in charge of it -- he inadvertently made the strongest argument I've yet heard as to why the Republicans should be a permanent fringe party: they hate the government, they hate governing, and when they are in charge they prove how badly government can be run, and then claim that it's always like that!

If Jindal is putting forth the fundamental views of today’s Republican Party, he has in effect said that government should be abandoned in toto and the fate of America should be put in the hands of it’s largest companies and wealthiest individuals. By dismissing the idea of a people-centered government in favour of a private-enterprise corporatocracy, he (and by extension, the Republicans) are essentially giving up on democracy itself.

There is plenty of merit in the core values the Republicans espouse (but never practice when elected, it would seem): selectively smaller government, personal responsibility (the hypocrisy on this plank is particularly galling), limited foreign entanglements, lower taxes. But they are only good ideas if they are applied mindfully, not mindlessly. Calling volcano monitoring “waste” for no reason other than you don’t personally understand it (or it doesn’t apply directly to your state) is plainly stupid. Jindal’s entire speech reeks of not having been thought through very well, and that’s exactly the problem with the current crop of Republican officials: they don’t seem to have good critical-analysis skills, particularly at the top levels.

From talking down to Americans as though they were pre-schoolers to deliberately using unverified (and, as it turns out, mistaken) information in a national speech that was ridiculously easy to disembowel, Jindal has seriously hurt the party’s credibility even with rank-and-file Republicans (who aren’t, it should be noted, anywhere near as foolish or simple-minded as their leadership).

The problem with the current batch of Republican officials is that they love power, but hate to do the work (this has certainly also been and is still true of some Democrats). The problem here isn’t Jindal; it’s that he can’t support the positions of the party with realistic and factual arguments, and apart from “tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations” (hello, we tried that, didn’t work out too well) they don’t appear to actually have any coherent thoughts on what to do.

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