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
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT