LAS VEGAS—At the end of a long day at this week's annual meeting of the Republican Governors Association, the group's new leader, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, anxiously paced a conference room at the Encore Resort. Moments earlier, he had publicly rebuked comments made by the former leader of his party, Mitt Romney. And he's not sorry for it.
"It is corrosive," Jindal said. "We cannot become the party that divides people into special interest groups. By class, race, gender. But to the extent that we're talking about the 53 and the 47 percent? That to me doesn't sound like a party that's fighting for every vote. That doesn't sound to me like a party that really understands that 100 percent of the American people benefit from our principles."
The Republican Party is looking desperately for new leaders after losing the presidential election last week, and Jindal is vying to be the one who stands atop the rubble and provides solutions. He has made little effort to hide his disgust with the way members of his party—including Romney—conceded voters to the opposition. He's particularly frustrated with Romney for saying to campaign donors in private meetings that Republicans can't hope to win support from "47 percent" of the country and that Obama defeated him in part because he promised "gifts" to ethnic minorities and women in return for their support.
In the aftermath of an election in which Democrats not only kept control of the White House but also bolstered their numbers in Congress, Jindal is on a mission to, in his word, "modernize" the Republican Party. He wants fellow Republicans to be more aggressive about campaigning for the votes of the middle class, minorities and women, and to stop reinforcing stereotypes that the only voters Republicans care about are upper-class white men.
Jindal could hardly believe a pre-election poll that showed more Americans believed that Democrats were more likely than Republicans to lower taxes on the middle class. "To me that shows how far off the rails we've gone," he said. "It's a substantive as well as a messaging problem."
On a range of issues, Jindal says he wants to change the way Republicans talk about their positions without straying from their principles. When arguing for lower tax rates, he said, Republicans should emphasize that they support a progressive tax structure by removing loopholes and write-offs. On education, he wants to hear his colleagues talk about how school choice programs can benefit students in poor districts. On energy, Republicans should stop the obsession with oil and pursue "an all-of-the-above" approach that doesn't promote one industry over another. And on immigration—perhaps one of the most important issues in the coming year—Republicans should emphasize the value of opening more opportunities to enter the United States legally instead of sounding like an anti-immigrant party.
All of that starts by shifting the tone Republicans take when defending their positions, including on social issues, Jindal said.
Senate candidates such as Indiana's Richard Mourdock and Missouri's Todd Akin, who both lost to easily beatable Democrats after making what Jindal called "offensive and inexcusable" comments about rape, complicate the effort.
"I'm pro-life. I try to follow the teachings of my faith and church, but I don't think we have any business trying to demonize those we disagree with," Jindal said. "I think we can be respectful."
It would be premature to say Jindal is setting the stage for a 2016 presidential campaign, but he talks like someone who is considering the idea. This is not the same man who in 2009 tenderly delivered a widely mocked Republican response to President Barack Obama's first address to Congress. Now, that awkward, soft-spoken "Kenneth the Page" Jindal from four years ago has given way to a new, more aggressive politician.
"The future of this party is very bright," Jindal said. "But we have to make serious changes."