Governor Bobby Jindal on Louisiana’s renaissance, and what this presidential campaign should be about.
HH: We’re very pleased to begin today with the first visit of we hope many to the Hugh Hewitt Show, of Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a long time member of Congress for three years prior to becoming Governor, for many years in the public eye. Governor Jindal, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
BJ: Well, thank you very much for having me on. I very much look forward to coming back. Again, it’s great to be on the air with you today.
HH: Well now, you have been on our target list for a long time, because John Campbell, your colleague, your old colleague from the Republican Study Group, said you’re one of the guys on the Hill who used to come up with ideas, as opposed to, you know, positions. And I’d like to start with some bio if we could, Governor. You’re a product of Louisiana, you went to Brown, we’re not going to hold that against you.
HH: Then you went off to Oxford. And by the way, your new college, right, at Oxford?
BJ: That is correct.
HH: That is the most beautiful chapel I’ve ever worshipped in. I was there in January again, when I was speaking at the Oxford Union. It’s an amazing place.
BJ: Each of those colleges have their own chapels. They are beautiful places to worship, with the stained glass, the traditions there. You’ll be happy to know at Brown, I actually restarted college Republicans, became state chairman in Rhode Island while I was there. We actually had more members than the college Democrats, only because we signed up every single conservative on campus. And we were a small but determined minority.
HH: Oh, being a Republican at Brown is certainly a testing time. Let me ask you, though, ten years ago, then-Governor of Louisiana named you to the head of the department of health and hospitals in Louisiana. You were 26 at the time. What was he thinking?
BJ: Actually, it was even worse than that. I was 24.
BJ: It was the department in greatest danger. There were huge deficits, it was hugely broken. I was proud of what we were able to do. We actually cut spending by a billion dollars. We didn’t cut growth. We actually cut spending by a billion dollars. We were able to reduce the number of employees by a thousand, and we still improved outcomes. We were third best for a preventive care for children. We increased immunization rates, increased care for the elderly, the disabled. We proved you don’t just improve health care by just throwing government money at it. And it was a department that was broken, he was ready to try something different. It had been run into the ground. He took a big risk on me. I was in the private sector, had never done anything politically. There was no political reason for him, I had never given him a dollar, he had never met me. But we interviewed, we hit it off, and he just said, his only instructions to me were do the right thing. And I said I absolutely will do that, Governor, and again, I’m proud of the huge reforms we made, I think proving, so often in government, they measure success by effort and by dollars spent, not outcomes. And we proved that wasn’t the right way to measure success.
HH: Was it immediately after the LA Department of Health and Hospitals that you went to the Medicare Commission? Or did you go to the University of Louisiana system first?
BJ: No, we went to the Medicare Commission, spent a year on this bipartisan commission, before I went to run the university system. And you know, in the Medicare Commission, you can summarize a year’s worth of work really in one sentence. The commission said why not allow choice and competition to work in health care. We allow it to work everywhere else in the economy, in society, why not allow it to work in health care. It was a one year commission, did that, came home, and ran the University of Louisiana system before I became an assistant secretary of health and human services for this President Bush under his first administration, first couple of years, before I came home, ran for governor the first time, got second place, there’s no silver medal in politics, went to Congress for three years, and now was just elected Governor this past fall, just now in my fourth month as Governor here in Louisiana.
HH: A little bit more bio, Governor. In terms of the University of Louisiana system, is it like the University of California system, a number of campuses around a central office that doesn’t have much power in the campuses? Or is it authoritarian in its structure?
BJ: Well, it’s a hybrid. We had eight universities, over 80,000 students in those universities, community colleges as well. We were able to do things like, for example, raising graduation retention rates, setting academic policy, so there was a lot of policy authority. We were able, for example, to bring in the private sector to renovate the dorms, to improve the operations at the cafeterias and the bookstores. It was amazing, at all these campuses, what we found time and time again was that students had higher satisfaction rates, they had better values for the dollars that we’re spending, and it just proved again what I said about the Medicare Commission. The private sector showed that it could do a much better job in delivering value. It started off on one campus, and we were able to do it on all those campuses. And so we made several big changes in my time there.
HH: Now Governor, you’ve escaped from Congress, but I want you to look back over your shoulder a little bit, because it wasn’t so long ago you were there. Do the Republicans in the House, and usually John Campbell’s on the program with me every Friday from the House Republican Study Group. Do the Republicans in the House have a clear vision forward, in your view? Do they have a way to reenergize and refocus the American public on what could be done as opposed to simply what is happening to us?
BJ: I don’t think we’re there yet. I think we have great young leaders like John Campbell, like Paul Ryan, like…there are folks like this that are principled, that are conservative, that realize that in 2006, the American people didn’t hire Nancy Pelosi to be Speaker. Rather, they fired the House Republicans, and fired them with cause. Look, we, three big mistakes the Republican conference made, and leading up to those elections, even before those elections, number one, that the Republican Party started defending spending and the earmarks we would have rightfully condemned if they were offered by the other side. Whether it was the Bridge to Nowhere, or whether it was growth in spending, they just, for whatever reason, the Republican Party decided it was going to try to be a cheaper version of the Democratic Party, and that doesn’t work. The second fundamental mistake was the party began to defend corruption and mistakes among its members that it never would have tolerated on the other side, and rightfully would have condemned on the other side. But then third, as you suggest, I think the party began to run out of ideas. Instead of saying this is why you should vote for conservatives, and vote for Republicans, they went out there and started saying well look how scary the other side is. The American people don’t want to vote against somebody. They want to vote for somebody, and for ideas, that we got into these debates on SCHIP and health care, and all these other debates, and instead of giving…and some of these were after 2006, and instead of offering conservative solutions, we sounded like we were just cheaper Democrats. You know, the Republicans said well, they want to spend $30 billion dollars, we’ll spend half that, instead of saying you know, we’ve got a different set of values, a different set of beliefs. We don’t believe government should be running health care. We don’t believe you should be sending more tax dollars to Washington. I saw it in Louisiana. After Katrina, we had a wonderful opportunity, that the government had a wonderful opportunity after the botched rescue efforts, and initial recovery attempts, to come in there and say we’re not just going to spend billions of dollars through the old style bureaucracies. We’re going to come in and change public housing, change health care, change education, do it differently, try to get people jobs, help people help themselves. Instead, it just felt like we were putting, to use the Biblical phrase, just new wine in old wine containers. It just, you know, we weren’t, we really weren’t changing the policies, we weren’t changing how government does what it does, and delivers its services. So for Republicans to get the majority back, I think it’s going to be important they give the American voters a clear distinction, a clear message, of what we offer, how we are fundamentally different. And we don’t have to denigrate our opponents. We just have to say look, we just think differently. We don’t think there should be a government solution to every problem. We don’t think the government program is the right response to every issue. And when government does need to get involved, we believe in the private sector. We think the private sector’s more efficient, more nimble, more responsive. We need to articulate those clear differences. I think when we do that, we’ll do very well. This is a center-right, this is a conservative country. That hasn’t changed. Again, I don’t think the voters hired Speaker Pelosi, I think they fired us.
HH: Governor Jindal is my guest from Louisiana. A couple more biographical details. You’re Roman Catholic, you’re married, you’ve got three beautiful children. Are you pro-life, Governor?
BJ: I am, and it’s…look, I’m a convert to Christianity, a convert to Catholicism. It all happened when I was in high school as a teenager. I follow my faith’s teachings, and to me, that means every life is sacred, it’s precious. And look, the other side that likes to describe these positions as extreme, I think they’re traditional. I think this is what our nation has long believed. To me, it’s one of those fundamental principles. It doesn’t always win you votes, but for me, it’s the right position, it’s the right thing to believe.
HH: Now I do not know the Louisiana system. Do you appoint justices to the Louisiana Supreme Court down there, Governor?
BJ: No, they’re all elected. We don’t have an appointed judiciary. They’re all elected. Our Supreme Court is roughly split, I think, by outside analysis, moderately conservative, but it’s a roughly split Court.
HH: All right. In terms of how you have staffed your administration, what have you looked for? Have you been willing, and I have to fault W. for this. I think the President’s a great president, but he hasn’t really gone young. He hasn’t done what your governor did when he made you the head of the health and hospitals board. Are you reaching to wherever talent is, regardless of age or background?
BJ: Absolutely, and I’ll just give you two or three examples. My chief of staff’s even younger than I am. Timmy Teepell, brilliant, very hard-working, committed man. He’s worked in D.C. before, he’s from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he was home schooled, controversial in a lot of circles. I said you know, it’s not about a piece of paper or credential. He didn’t go to college traditionally. He studied at home. But he is extremely brilliant, and has done a great job. I hired the former CEO of Louisiana’s only Fortune 500 company to be my secretary of the department of labor, Tim Barfield. Now here’s a guy, within three months has worked himself out of a job. He came in and said we don’t need a department of labor. Let’s take this department apart, let’s put the employers, let’s put the business community in control of these workforce training programs, because they’re the ultimate customers. We’re getting those bills passed in the legislature now. We hired a guy named Alan Levine to run the health department, a Republican expert on health care, was doing this in Florida, was making more than three times what he makes here in government, was in the private sector running three hospitals, has worked in the for profit, not for profit sectors, was a former cabinet secretary in Florida under Governor Bush. These are the kinds of superstars, people that could be making a lot more money in the private sector, I can’t pay a Fortune 500 CEO salary, but people that want to make a difference, people that want to make an impact, people that realize that we’ve got more work than time. And every day, we need to be about changing, we don’t just need to be making incremental changes, we need to be making bold changes.
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HH: Governor, Tim Pawlenty’s on here all the time. In fact, he calls up pretty much every day and asks to come on, and he normally bribes me with titles. He makes me things. I just want to make sure we have an even playing field. I’m thinking perhaps if you designated me Polemarch of New Orleans, that would make…
HH: Does that ring true to you?
BJ: You know, we’d be happy to give you whatever semi-official titles that it would take for you to help us get the word out that it’s a new day in Louisiana. We want your listeners to come in and invest in Louisiana, to visit. I know many of them have been here as tourists, but we want them to come as investors. You can make a good profit down here. You can create businesses down here, you can create jobs down here. So if it’s Polemarch, whatever it takes, help us get the word out.
HH: That’s it. Polemarch of New Orleans it is. I’ll go with that, Governor. Now let’s talk a little bit about the Louisiana renaissance. You’ve made a budget out to the state. You’ve told them no special slush funds. How’s that going over in Louisiana?
BJ: We shocked a lot of people. You know, we had our first special session, when I first got elected, and said we’re going to declare war on corruption. And we showed people we were serious. When we said these things on the campaign trail, that wasn’t just rhetoric. We meant we’re going to move to 44th worst to first best, according to the Center For Public Integrity for our disclosure rules. We said you know, no more free golf games, football tickets, got rid of the lavish meals, made them disclose income, no more state contracts for elected officials, lobbies had to disclose everything. Then we had a second special session. We got rid of taxes on debt, new equipment and utilities, so our businesses can expand here. We said we’re going to spend one time money on one time expenses. There’s a radical thought, but it hasn’t been done before. Every budget we could find used one time money for recurring expenditures. Instead, we used one time money for roads, after we cut taxes, for things like roads, for ports. We gave a tax deduction for private tuition, things like that. Now we’re in a regular session, and we’ve said we need a line item veto. If the legislature tries to earmark things, unless they have a public debate on it, unless it’s a true state priority, and you know, there are cases, let’s be clear, there are cases when you’ve got a faith-based group, or a not for profit group that does something that’s really important, better than the government can do it. But the vast majority of times, you’re talking about taxpayers’ dollars going to groups because they’re politically connected, that hired somebody’s brother-in-law, they know the right person. And that’s got to end. And people didn’t think we were serious. We sent a letter to the chairman saying hear the criteria. If you don’t meet this criteria, we’re going to line item veto these things, got a lot of people’s attention. Members went to the floor, they’ve complained about it, but we’re going to show them we’re serious. We’re going to take up that veto pen, we’re going to use it, and return the taxpayers’ dollars where it belongs.
HH: Now Governor, I watched your National Press Club press conference, and you spent a lot of time talking about the levees in New Orleans. If someone was thinking about coming down there now, to invest and take advantage of your business-friendly appeal to bring jobs and industry to New Orleans, is it going to be a safe city?
BJ: Yes. I want to say a couple of things. One, there are many places in the greater New Orleans area, you know, Chevron recently moved to the North Shore. There are many areas in the greater New Orleans area that of course are nowhere near the threat of flooding, that weren’t threatened by Katrina. But even the areas that were flooded because the levees didn’t work, Corps has spent billions of dollars, they were certify today the levees are stronger than they were before Katrina. With all the high water events on the Mississippi River, we had all that flooding in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, you didn’t have any problems down here. The levees did what they were supposed to do, the pumps did what they were supposed to do. The Corps is on track to continue their improvements to protect us from a hundred year storm. The reality is, everywhere you go in this country, they’ve got earthquakes in California, they’ve got tornadoes in the Midwest. There’s nowhere you’re going to be in America, nowhere on this planet where you’re completely safe from any eventuality. But the reality is, yes, people can be reasonably safe down here, they can buy insurance down here, they can do business down here. In my lifetime, and I’m 36 years old, in my lifetime, that 2005 was the first time we’ve ever had any kind of event that catastrophic, and it was really due to manmade errors.
HH: Well, that’s what I want to get to. It’s not so much that storms don’t happen, or will happen, or levees, but that the dysfunction that was political, the dysfunction that was human error, do you think you’ve got a grip on that?
BJ: Yes, and in two aspects. One, when you look at the construction of the levees, you’re right. The steel pilings didn’t go as deep as they were supposed to go. They didn’t use the right soil materials. And all of that is being changed and objectively examined. They’ve got the American Society of Civil Engineers, and all of that. But secondly, when you look at the response, and you look at the fact that there was, at every level, federal, state and local, there was just, there weren’t clear lines of authority, there was no common sense on the ground, there was no allowing people to do their jobs. Now you had your exceptions. The military did an amazing job. The Wildlife and Fisheries guys, the Coast Guard, and there were exceptions in those bureaucracies. But for the most part, the bureaucracies didn’t function the way they were supposed to. Absolutely we are better prepared, but here’s the other thing. And I could talk go you, I mean, look, we’ve invested money in inter-operable communications, we’ve pre-leased buses to get people out, we’ve audited to help care facilities evacuations plans. But here’s the most important thing, well, as important as all that other stuff, because we’ll still help the elderly, the disabled, and anybody else that’s stuck, that didn’t get out when they should have. Ultimately, people have to have a share of personal responsibility. You know, one of the most important things we can do, and we’ve got public education campaigns to say in an evacuation, you need to get out. And before there’s an evacuation, you need to know where you’re getting clean drinking water, where your food is, where your medicines are. You need to have three or four days of those things where you can easily get them. Don’t wait until the hurricane season to go buy that stuff. Don’t go to the hardware store and buy the wood for your windows. Have that stuff stockpiled. It’s just common sense. You should just have those things. It probably won’t happen, we’ve not even had an evacuation since Katrina. But if it does, don’t wait until the last minute. Ultimately, government can do some things, but ultimately, we all have personal responsibility to have a plan, know where we’d go and evacuate if something should happen.
HH: Now Governor, I want to talk a little more broadly, because obviously, race in America is going to be at the center of campaign 2008. I’ll be on Hannity and Colmes talking about it a little bit later tonight. A lot of people say Michelle Obama’s rhetoric is off limits because she’s African-American, a lot of people say a lot of the attacks on Barack Obama are rooted in race. As an American of Indian descent, as the child of immigrants, how ought the race issue to be handled by people who want to make sure that we look aggressively at Barack Obama’s policies, but also want to make sure that race is simply not an element of this campaign?
BJ: Well, two things. One, let’s remember this. This is the greatest country in the history of the world. One of the things I just, as a child of immigrants, somebody who was born and raised by somebody who loves this country every day, I listened to my dad, one of nine, the only one who went past the fifth grade, grew up in a house without running water, without electricity, would tell me every single day of my life until it was just, you are sick of hearing it, what an amazing blessing it was, what opportunities…I was sick of it as a child. Now, I appreciate it as a father what he was trying to teach me. I’m trying to teach my own children. And so I’ll be the first among many, many, many to tell you that what’s amazing is in this country, through hard work and education, there’s no limit on what you can accomplish. But secondly, so many people are trying to make this presidential race about identity politics, you know, first African-American male, first potentially female candidate, first this, first that. This is an important job. You know, the president of the United States is not something that you give out because somebody fits a demographic. You vote for a candidate because you think they’re qualified, because they have positions you agree with. And when you’re running for one of the most important jobs in our country, indeed in the world, I think you need to be scrutinized, whether you’re Republican or a Democrat. The voters in Louisiana didn’t vote for me because I was young. They didn’t vote for me because my parents came from another country. They voted for me because they thought I would do a good job for them. We need to be able to ask every hard-hitting question of Barack and his wife, just as we should of Senator McCain and his wife. You can’t say well this is, you know, we’re going to have to be sensitive about this, or we’re not going to ask this hard question. You know, this is too important. We’re not electing some local office. This is the president of the United States at a time when the country is at war, a time when we have to make critical decisions about energy and health care and tax policies. I think it’s fair game to ask the tough questions. And this isn’t, this should not be an election about demographics or identity politics. Let’s elect the most qualified person.
HH: Governor Bobby Jindal, thanks for being here. I will serve as your Polemarch of New Orleans proudly, and we’ll talk to you again soon.
End of interview.