True conservatives have never known exactly what to think of Bobby Jindal. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Republicans praised Louisiana’s newly elected governor as just the kind of energetic technocrat the state needed to get back on its feet. They were impressed by his youth, his intelligence, and, yes, his background (he’s Indian-American)—and they eagerly started talking him up for higher office. But then came his disastrous response to President Obama’s State of the Union in 2009, after which GOPers mercilessly mocked the governor for the same dorky qualities they once cheered. He no longer looked like presidential material in their eyes—and his mealy-mouthed acceptance of federal stimulus money only boosted the hard-line right’s belief that their hopes in him had been misplaced. And now, with Louisiana facing quite possibly the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history, Jindal has infuriated the Republican base (outside of Louisiana) on an entirely different level.
Constantly jumping in and out of National Guard helicopters and drawing up plans for additional “burrito levees” and “boudin bags” needed to stop the oil slick from flowing further into his state’s marshes, Jindal has quickly mastered the details of the issue. At a press conference in New Orleans in mid-May, the Washington Post reported that “he gave updates on the size of tar balls washing up in Port Fourchon (up to eight inches), the number of sandbags to be air-dropped (1,200) and state money spent to date ($3.7 million). He also provided a weather forecast (‘The winds continue to come out of the southeast, 10 to 15 knots’).”
All that knowledge has forced Jindal to admit that his state is facing a huge crisis—one that merits an equally huge state and federal response. This big government position hasn’t exactly endeared him to his GOP colleagues (who think he’s in league with an alarmist camp of environmental groups that want to villainize Big Oil) or to Democrats (who think his impassioned calls for a greater government response smack of hypocrisy), but Jindal has displayed the kind of smarts and ideological flexibility that we should applaud in our leaders, no matter the party.
The first thing Jindal did right was acknowledge the scope of the catastrophe. This might not seem deserving of praise—until one looks at how other Republicans have reacted. Nervous about a populist backlash against offshore drilling, or even growing momentum for a climate bill—and contemptuous of environmental science in general—many Republicans have downplayed the disaster. For example, Jindal’s gulf state GOP colleague, Haley Barbour, was quick to urge tourists not to cancel their trips to Mississippi’s beach towns, comparing the deluge of crude to the sheen of gasoline from a motor boat. “We don't wash our face in it, but it doesn't stop us from jumping off the boat to ski,” he told the AP. And Barbour’s not alone in taking such a blasé stance. “Haley has actually taken the smarter approach, from a national perspective,” a GOP operative explained to Politico yesterday. “He has taken the long view, that this shouldn’t kill an important source of energy.” Rather than maintain such political orthodoxy, Jindal has been wise to stand up for his state and talk about the spill for what it is: “This oil threatens not only our coast and our wetlands; this oil fundamentally threatens our way of life here in south Louisiana.”
Jindal also hasn’t been shy about mobilizing his own state’s resources to meet the challenge, doing it despite a big budget deficit he’s pledged to close and the small government mantras he likes to repeat. (James Garand, professor of political science at LSU, calls his performance “extremely proactive.”) Jindal announced he would call up members of the Louisiana National Guard to join state wildlife agents in an effort to help make up for the “inadequate” federal response. He’s also stated on numerous occasions that Louisiana shouldn’t stop its cash from flowing to counter the worst effects of the oil spill. As a result, Jindal’s drawn flack from some Democrats, like State Representative Sam Jones, who’ve noted that his response doesn’t square with his routine calls for limited government. But emergencies rightly require a departure from dogma, and Jindal seems prepared to spend as much as it takes.
And when it comes to actions outside his immediate jurisdiction, he’s been a constant, harping presence in the news, demanding that both the federal government and BP do everything they can possibly do to help. “He’s not just said that the federal government needs to come and fix this problem,” adds Garand. “He’s actually offered solutions.” Speaking at a press conference on Monday, Jindal laid out his demands: “We need more boom, more skimmers, more vacuums, more jack-up barges that are still in short supply.” He claims the administration had deployed 815,569 feet of hard containment boom—as outlined in the multistate “contingency plan” to address the spill—but that it hasn’t acted on additional requests he’s made since May 2. He’s also hell-bent on a scheme to build a protective line of islands, called sand booms, to help soak up the soil before it contaminates more marshland. Whether it would work—and how fast—is a hotly disputed issue, but there’s no question he’s put pressure on the Army Corps of Engineers to either approve the plan or come up with a better one. Also, in a rare display of populism, he’s targeted big business as the party that’s ultimately responsible. “We're going to fully demand that BP pay for the cleanup activities,” Jindal told reporters. “We're confident that at the end of the day BP will cover those costs.”
To be sure, Jindal is walking a fine line between advocating for what’s right and attempting to score points with Louisiana voters and against Obama. The administration’s point man for the crisis, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad W. Allen, argues that they’re fulfilling all the demands outlined within the plan agreed upon by the gulf state governors, and that they’ll get to Jindal’s additional requests next. Allen also takes issue with Jindal’s claim that his sand-island scheme could begin working within 10 days of approval, arguing that construction would take closer to nine months. Then there’s the legitimate question of whether it’d even work: “For the cost involved, the chances of being successful at doing any good … are minuscule,” speculated Jerome Milgram, a professor at MIT. Nevertheless, Jindal seems determined to avoid the fate of his predecessor, Governor Kathleen Blanco, who decided not to seek reelection after incurring harsh criticism for her lackluster response to Hurricane Katrina and the rebuilding effort that followed. It still may not make him presidential material, but Jindal’s proving himself to be an effective leader during a crisis.
Jesse Zwick is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.