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Jindal's Bad National Debut

As J.P. Green noted below, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was picked to do the official Republican response to Barack Obama's address to Congress last night, and the reviews are not very good. His delivery--which managed to sound both sing-songy and uncoordinated--was that of someone not terribly comfortable with prepared texts (you'd be surprised how many politicians share that problem), and his hand gestures were mechanical and distracting. The speech itself had a dumbed-down quality, or at least seemed that way to anyone who knows how bright Bobby Jindal is in real life. Even at National Review's The Corner, where Jindal has been a folk hero for years, the reaction was one of disappointment bordering on dismay.

Style aside, the most striking feature of Jindal's response was the sheer weirdness of the official Republican critique of Obama's first big speech beginning with a reminder of the federal government's handling of Hurricane Katrina. That's what left the normally very articulate Rachel Maddow of MSNBC speechless.

But when you really think about it, Jindal's citation of Katrina made sense (aside from the fact that he's from Louisiana) in the context of the central theme of his speech, which is that government can't do anything right other than to tear itself down and thus "empower" citizens. To me, the most remarkable thing in Jindal's response was his official (if oblique) apology, on behalf of the Republican Party, for George W. Bush's big-spending liberal ways, which rightly forfeited the trust of the American people. We've been hearing that from conservatives regularly since 2006, but it was still sounded odd on national TV in such a formal setting, at a time when the overwhelming majority of Americans who aren't conservative "base" voters are demanding federal activism.

Most Americans probably think of Katrina as an example of the catastrophic consequences of a federal government that has placed responsibility for emergency response in the hands of incompetent political hacks who didn't believe in their own mission and didn't much care about victims who weren't Republicans and refused to take care of themselves. But it's clear a lot of conservatives really did think government's main failure during Katrina was to involve itself--with the bureaucratic rules and regulations that Jindal cited in his lengthy and uncompelling anecdote about himself and Harry Lee--instead of getting out of the way and letting churches and citizens handle it all.

In other words, Bobby Jindal did offer a pretty faithful expression of the Republican Party's contemporary governing philosophy, such as it is. Instead of complaining about his delivery, Republicans should reflect a bit on Jindal's core message.

And that's why the general feeling across the board that Jindal really hurt his national political aspirations last night is a bit ironic. He satisfied the first requirement for any Republican who wants to run for president these days: he echoed the views of the conservative base, just as he did when he joined the small group of Republican governors who pledged to reject some of the stimulus money. But he didn't do so with a "Reaganesque" ability to perform the sort of rhetorical enchantment that makes core conservative views attractive to the rest of the country. That may prove to be an impossible standard for any potential candidate for president.