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 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT