Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Jindal, courage is not enough

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
January 26, 2013 -- Updated 1551 GMT (2351 HKT)
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
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
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
ADVERTISEMENT