Bobby Jindal's Clickbait Campaign
Policy dissertations haven't gotten him any 2016 traction, so he's turning to pop-culture references — and trying to piggyback off the Donald Trump media machine.
Donald Trump. Martha Stewart. "Prison time" for Hillary Clinton. Orange Is the New Black. In the past week on the campaign trail, Bobby Jindal has mentioned them all.
Jindal has been the Republican governor of Louisiana since 2007. He's a former Rhodes Scholar who authored a dense, nearly 200-page thesis on health policy and Judeo-Christian values. And he's the person who in 2013 called on Republicans to "stop being the stupid party."
But right now, he's a presidential candidate who's polling at around 1 percent. So as he fights for attention in a Republican presidential field that's 17 members strong, he's doing whatever he can to grab some sunlight — including giving red meat to the party's base and making forays into pop culture.
And while campaign gimmicks and histrionics are far from unique in this presidential campaign, or any other, what sets Jindal's approach apart is the transparency and self-awareness with which he's deploying it.
"I realize that the best way to make news is to mention Donald Trump," Jindal quipped Monday in an Iowa speech, according to prepared remarks that his campaign sent to reporters. "That's the gold standard for making news these days. So, I've decided to randomly put his name into my remarks at various points, thereby ensuring that the news media will cover what I have to say."
The gold standard was met. The coverage was ensured. And Jindal got a burst of stories with his name in the headlines. (Nearly all of them had "Trump" in the headline as well.)
When the entire GOP field took their shots at Hillary Clinton over her private email-server scandal, Jindal went all in. Noting Clinton's statement to a federal judge that she had provided all her work-related email to the State Department, Jindal called the Democratic favorite "one email away from prison time."
The he brought Martha Stewart, who once served five months in prison for lying to investigators about a stock transaction, into the equation. "Maybe her friend Martha Stewart can stop giving her interior-decorating advice and give her jailhouse-survival tips instead. Orange really will be the new black," he said Tuesday, referencing the Netflix series about women in prison.
Jindal's campaign defended his tactics. "Do you prefer boring? We don't use the talking points others use. Americans want straight talk," Shannon Dirmann, his press secretary, said in an email exchange. "The governor is having fun on the trail in Iowa; the voters are enjoying it. And truth is stranger than fiction. ... Simply telling the truth about Hillary Clinton is explosive."
Not everyone, however, is confident it will get results: "Clever sound bites do not get you to the White House," said Republican strategist John Feehery, who is not affiliated with any of the GOP campaigns. "That is no substitute for a real strategy."
But what else is Jindal to do? Jindal doesn't have a $100 million super PAC like Jeb Bush. He doesn't have the name recognition and full-on Iowa infrastructure of Scott Walker. And he didn't even get to participate in the prime-time debate, where candidates such as John Kasich and Marco Rubio got to address an audience of millions without spending a dime.
Further, it's not as if Jindal has eschewed his wonkish roots. He came to Washington this February hoping to make a splash with a national plan for education policy, and his website has lengthy explanations of his policy plans on energy, health care, education, and defense. None of that, however, has rescued him from the back of the pack.
Jindal has plenty of company in his predicament, and his fellow members of the peloton are also hoping for viral hits that will vault them into the top tier. Rick Perry is beefing with Trump like they're on rival music labels, Lindsey Graham put his cell phone in a blender, Mike Huckabee used a Holocaust comparison to describe President Obama's Iran nuclear-arms policy, and Rand Paul took a chainsaw to the tax code.
In other elections, long-shot candidates like Jindal have made the leap with stunts, hyperbole, and creative messaging that catches fire with the public and generates media buzz — scoring the candidate the type of visibility that would otherwise cost a fortune in advertising. That's how, during the 2012 presidential race, Herman Cain rode his "9-9-9" tax proposal to a brief moment of glory, and it's how Michele Bachmann revved up the party base enough to win the Iowa straw poll.
But in 2016, however, the hyperbole and media hype is being hoovered up by Donald Trump, a celebrity candidate with nothing to lose and a near preternatural ability to keep his name in the news. And so Jindal is doing whatever he can to get some shine on his sapling campaign — and hoping that sooner or later, Trump will stop blotting out the sun.