There wasn't much mystery preceding President Obama's address to a joint session of congress last night. Everyone knew it would be about economic stimulus, everyone knew it would involve cheerleading America, everyone knew it would be pretty damned good. Obama used the constitutional requirement that the president address congress on the state of the union "from time to time" to get both houses together in one place. Not specifically a state of the union address, it still filled the bill. The state of the union is not strong and Barack Obama -- as we've come to expect -- asked us all to roll up our sleeves and strengthen it.
Republicans -- still patting each other on the back for their near-universal opposition to Obama's stimulus -- were forced to face the undeniable fact that there was no victory here for them. The bill passed and the obstructionism of they were so proud of had cost them dearly. Polling shows that voters see the party as out of touch and just "not getting it." But, as I've pointed out before, in the House of Representatives at least, only the farthest right wing reps from the very reddest districts remain after two consecutive Democratic election cycles. They are the crazies, those for whom ideology borders on religious belief, those who are lost causes. Reality doesn't bother them, since it's not where they live. Being forced to face it the way they were must've been painful.
In this party made up of the surviving nuts, leadership has been hard to come by. They've elected party leadership, but no one pays any attention to them. "I don't even know the congressional leadership," says Utah's Republican Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. "I have not met them. I don't listen or read whatever it is they say because it is inconsequential -- completely."
Given this lack of leadership, the big celebrities in the GOP have been Sarah Palin, Joe the Plumber, and Rush Limbaugh. Seriously. They desperately needed someone serious to become the face of the party. Someone who wasn't a national joke or a divisive figure. Since only the crazies are left in Washington, they needed to go outside DC. They found Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
He was just what they needed -- far enough right without seeming ridiculous and not an obvious fool. He's threatened to turn down a tiny sliver of the stimulus money for his state, while grandstanding on the threat. He's considering a presidential run the next time around and, unlike Sarah Palin, he speaks English. The GOP had found their guy. Gov. Bobby Jindal would deliver the Republican response to Obama's address. The new face of the Republican party was now something other than an unemployed plumber, an empty-headed former beauty queen, or a drug-addled blowhard.
It didn't go well. Jindal, already handicapped by limiting himself to the party line, was wooden and uncomfortable. He shot for a southern folksiness and wound up with the pacing and inflection of a Quick Draw McGraw. Even his walk to the camera at the Governor's Mansion in Baton Rouge was stiff, prompting one commentator on MSNBC to say "Oh God..." under his breath.
The governor started off well enough, pointing out the historical nature of the president's first address to a joint session of congress and giving a brief son-of-an-immigrant bio of himself, but things quickly went south. He claimed that Republicans had "better ideas," then went on to list off some of the things in the stimulus that he didn't like.
While some of the projects in the bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes $300 million to buy new cars for the government, $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a magnetic levitation line from Las Vegas to Disneyland, and $140 million for something called volcano monitoring.
Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.
We shouldn't be keeping an eye on volcanoes? And that "magnetic levitation line from Las Vegas to Disneyland?" Yeah, that's not in the stimulus. That "$300 million to buy new cars for the government" is $300 million to buy a more fuel-efficient fleet, saving the federal government money in the long run. As Republicans have been throughout this debate, Jindal makes stuff up to oppose. It makes you wonder how genuine their reasons for opposing it can possibly be.
Of those "better ideas," Jindal offered tax cuts, tax cuts, and tax cuts -- because using tax cuts to cure every ill has been working so well for us so far. He said that Republicans "stand for universal access to affordable health care coverage," but that's the first I've ever heard of it. They used to be all about health care savings accounts, where you put money aside to pay for health care -- because everyone's finding it just so easy to build up savings accounts these days. If the GOP has a plan for universal coverage, it might've been a good idea not to keep the details secret.
After they shut down the remote feed from Louisiana, even conservative commentators gave Jindal the thumbs down. "It came off as amateurish, and even the tempo in which he spoke was sing-songy," said Juan Williams on FOX News. "He was telling stories that seemed very simplistic and almost childish."
"In a moment when only the federal government is actually big enough to do stuff, to just ignore all that and just say ‘government is the problem, corruption, earmarks, wasteful spending,’ it’s just a form of nihilism," said conservative columnist David Brooks on PBS. "It’s just not where the country is, it’s not where the future of the country is."
"E-mails I’m getting are from disappointed conservatives," wrote Kathryn Jean Lopez for the National review's The Corner. "They wanted a full-throated response to Obama and expected and/or wanted more."
But these people should have less criticism for Jindal and more for the party in general. Jindal may not have done well, but he was only as good as the material he had to work with. Republicans really don't have anything but criticism to offer, so no one should be surprised that Gov. Jindal didn't have any solutions. If all you have is "Obama's wrong," it's hard to come up with some idea of what might be right.
The new face of the Republican party won't do much to change people's minds if the only thing it has to offer are the same tired old failures, instead of new ideas.