IN THE rose-scented wake of President Obama’s first congressional address, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal drew the short straw to present a Republican “response” to the new administration’s unofficial State of the Union address. Polished, conservative, and glowing with the accolades of the right, Jindal seemed to be the perfect antidote to Obama’s gleaming liberal agenda. And yet, despite the calls for real debate, the two men could not have been on more separate, isolated stages.

Jindal faced a particularly formidable opponent: a popular president with ethos to burn. The governor’s rebuttal could realistically take one of two paths: reply with a similarly crafted, high-style address, or cut to the chase with a razor-sharp critique of the president’s points. Jindal’s response languished in the murky gap between the two. Sounding unfortunately similar to Kenneth Parcell, he delivered an impassioned but stale version of the Republican mantra: we don’t believe government the answer; we believe Americans are the answer. Sounds great, Mr. Governor, but what did you think of the speech?

Beginning with his upwardly-mobile background and pulling from Louisiana’s water-logged history, Jindal attempted to invoke American ingenuity but hovered at a level of political reminiscence. His primary theme—“We believe Americans can do anything!”—might have worked on the campaign stump, but it fell flat against the weighty third-rail issues the President addressed.

Obama’s address wove his typical rhetorical devices with strong issue identification. He began with the economic crisis, moved swiftly to job creation, and continually hammered his legislative priorities: renewable energy, healthcare restructuring, and education reform. If these topics set the administration’s “affirmative plan,” Jindal should have provided the refutation. Instead, he glossed over Obama’s proposals for accountable spending, middle class tax cuts, healthcare provisions, education development, and energy incentives. Each of these proposals has gaping flaws, but Jindal chose to lump them all under the evil “liberal agenda” rather than call them out one by one and offer persuasive alternatives.

Based on his usually courageous and passionate speechifying, it seemed likely Jindal would offer more than tepid ambiguity. Just this past week, he was at the forefront of Republican governors, vowing to reject stimulus funds that would ultimately amount to unfunded mandates for state entitlement programs. He has built a solid reputation on eloquent defenses of the conservative position, glimmers of which shone through last night when he asked: “Who among us would ask our children for a loan so we could spend money we do not have on things we do not need? That is precisely what the Democrats in Congress just did.” 

Like the president, Jindal’s sincerity is one of his greatest rhetorical strengths, and it’s understandable why he relied so heavily on emotional appeals. But even if a blow-by-blow rebuttal wasn’t feasible, Jindal’s stalwart defense of American innovation needed an equally strong bulwark of better ideas. For example: apply greater scrutiny to the stimulus spending. The President mentioned “accountability” and “transparency” nearly every other paragraph and yet never hinted at any criteria for their enforcement. What good is fiscal responsibility without a means to define fiscal waste? Or, in the discussion of taxes, connect the dots between small business and economic growth. The President offered numerous tax cuts to the middle class yet few breaks for the small businesses who hire the middle class. What good is stimulus when the engines of innovation are left without fuel?

Jindal mentioned similar examples, but he did so with a spirit of contradiction rather than critique. We believe government isn’t the solution. We believe in empowering people. We believe ethics are important. Even if the Rest of Us agreed, this sour-grapes conservatism isn’t an adequate rebuttal to the vibrant proposals of an extremely persuasive Democratic president.

As a speaker and campaign face, it’s certain Jindal will play a role in bringing the Republican Party back to life. As a governor, he has demonstrated responsible leadership. But as a debater, he will need to step up his game. If you’re going to spar with the leader of the free world, bring some clearer notes to the podium.

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