CHARLOTTE, N.C.—It was a rematch years in the making, but Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal finally got another shot on Thursday to deliver a formal response to President Barack Obama's vision for the country.
In 2009, Jindal was nearly laughed off the national stage when he delivered the official Republican response to Obama's first address to a joint session of Congress. Jindal's "response," consisting of restrained rhetoric spoken awkwardly into a single camera, was universally panned as a dud. Some even called it a career killer.
Flash forward to 2013: Obama has been re-elected to his second term as president. At his inauguration ceremony, he delivers one of the most ambitious defenses of liberalism from an American president in modern history. With Mitt Romney out of the picture and the Republican Party in temporary postelection disarray, Jindal sees an opportunity for redemption and to position himself as the alpha in the party.
The circumstances seem perfect for a politician who harbors national ambitions. His venue is the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee, where the top party activists from every American state and territory have gathered to chart the GOP's next move. They're nervous about the party's future and worried about their ability to bring minorities into the fold. They're looking for a leader. Jindal, the son of Indian immigrants, sees a chance to make an early impression on the party faithful, and boldly calls for change.
"We've got to stop being the stupid party. It's time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults," he said. "We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. I'm here to say we've had enough of that."
Throughout his 25-minute speech, Jindal rebutted Obama's defense earlier this week for a robust and active federal government and offered a counterphilosophy focused on growing private businesses beyond Washington without relying on the engine of the federal government.
"We must lay out the contrast between liberalism’s top-down government solutions and our bottom-up real world philosophy. We believe in creating abundance, not redistributing scarcity," he said. "We should let the other side try to sell Washington’s ability to help the economy, while we promote the entrepreneur, the risk-taker, the self-employed woman who is one sale away from hiring her first employee. Let the Democrats sell the stale power of more federal programs, while we promote the rejuvenating power of new businesses."
Jindal took on Obama's call for higher taxes on the wealthy, which the president has argued helps supply money needed for federal programs that aid the poor and middle class. He slammed Obama's foreign policy agenda and the recent effort to reform federal laws restricting purchases of certain guns and high-caliber magazines that were used in deadly mass shootings during Obama's first term.
"Higher taxes still do not create prosperity for all. And more government still does not grow jobs," Jindal said. "If you believe in higher taxes, more debt, more government spending, weakness abroad and taking guns from law-abiding citizens—you already have a party that is well represented in Washington. No, the Republican Party does not need to change our principles, but we might need to change just about everything else we do."
His address, audaciously sent to the press under a banner reading "Gov. Jindal to Refute President Obama’s Liberal Vision for America," lived up to its name, but it was as much a rebuttal of Republican tactics as a tirade against Obama.
"Today’s conservatism is completely wrapped up in solving the hideous mess that is the federal budget, the burgeoning deficits, the mammoth federal debt, the shortfall in our entitlement programs … even as we invent new entitlement programs. We seem to have an obsession with government bookkeeping," Jindal said. "This is a rigged game, and it is the wrong game for us to play."
He added: "We as Republicans have to accept that government number crunching—even conservative number crunching—is not the answer to our nation’s problems. ... Balancing our government’s books is not what matters most. Government is not the end all and be all."
Jindal went on to prescribe a message for the GOP that prioritizes economic growth over cutting federal spending.
"Instead of worrying about managing government, it’s time for us to address how we can lead America to a place where she can once again become the land of opportunity, where she can once again become a place of growth and opportunity," he said. "We should put all of our eggs in that basket as conservatives and Republicans."
The speech, delivered during a dinner amid the clanking of silverware and dishes, was interrupted only a few times by polite applause. While the words Jindal spoke appeared powerful on paper, he rushed through his remarks without a steady cadence. (It didn't help that near the end of his speech, a jazz band began to loudly warm up its instruments. Jindal ignored it.) Some of the words seemed mumbled.
It may have been the most sweeping argument against the president's agenda since the beginning of Obama's second term—and a powerful challenge to Republicans—but similar to 2009, the delivery may still need some work for a national debut.