“It’s just common sense,” a supremely exasperated George Costanza insisted during a classic episode of the old “Seinfeld” sitcom, after learning that his girlfriend Susan has started hanging out with his platonic pal Elaine. “Everybody knows you gotta keep your worlds apart.”
When worlds collide, the punchline goes, “it blows up.”
I think it’s safe to say Gov. Bobby Jindal’s worlds are colliding these days, too.
Much like fictional, self-involved George, the real-life, egocentric governor has gone to great pains to compartmentalize his life. I’m not sure which is the metaphorical friend and which the significant other, but there’s no question that Jindal has sought to keep state government and national politics in separate realms.
At home in Baton Rouge, Jindal may be the widely criticized chief executive hampered by low poll numbers, the steward of a decimated budget who long ago cemented a reputation for putting his future ambitions ahead of his current responsibilities.
But out there beyond Louisiana’s borders, he’s still the can-do wunderkind who has all the answers and is releasing a series of position papers through his Virginia-based think tank aimed at winning the “war of ideas,” according to America Next’s website.
Or so he’d like the people out there to think.
Jindal’s problem is that those people are starting to hang out with people back here or at least listen to what they have to say. The result has been a series of embarrassments just as he’s trying to raise his profile and prove his stature, in the months leading up to what sure smells like a presidential campaign announcement. In other words, things are indeed blowing up.
Jindal headed to the Northeast this weekend to promote his platform on K-12 education. Instead, he found himself hounded by questions over the budget crisis back home, specifically next year’s $1.6 billion shortfall and the toll it’s expected to take on state colleges and universities.
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” the man who loves to rattle off numbers stumbled when asked the cost of attending LSU and then got the answer flat wrong.
“I think it … I don’t …” Jindal stuttered in response to the question. “It’s certainly well under $10,000, when you look at fees and housing. It’s cheaper than other schools in the South, in the SEC.”
Actually, that would be more than $20,000 for fees and housing, according to LSU’s estimates. Jindal’s spokeswoman said afterward that her boss misspoke.
“The governor was referring to fees and tuition,” she told The Advocate. “The state doesn’t control housing costs.”
And rather than just jot down his claim at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast this week that “the total higher education budget, including means of total finance — is actually a little bit, just slightly, higher than when I took office,” the Washington Post’s fact checkers took a good, hard look, accused Jindal of taking some big liberties and awarded him three out of a possible four Pinocchios.
“The ways that Jindal’s calculation makes up for the cuts are either through student financial assistance or through significantly increased tuition and fees that students are paying to help keep the schools running. Yet the public would not know that without digging into the numbers that are or are not included in state budget documents,” the Post wrote.
Why the deep scrutiny? Well, the Post’s write-up points to the wide gulf between what Jindal said that morning in Washington, D.C., and what has been previously reported from Baton Rouge. And indeed, the trip came just after a run of stories in national publications detailing both the state’s budget woes and Jindal’s widely acknowledged focus on the one world and not the other.
That, in turn, followed Jindal’s highly publicized but largely panned excursion to London, where his tough talk about “radical Islam” and alleged “no-go zones” was dismissed as fact-challenged and overly divisive, all of which probably contributed to the skepticism he faced.
Jindal’s larger problem is that it’s just not as easy as it used to be for wannabe presidents to keep their worlds separate. Incriminating news from home, be it press clippings, blog posts or even tweets, travels too quickly and too easily.
So while the people who focus on national politics are finally paying attention to Jindal, they’re not exactly being bowled over. Instead, they’re scratching their heads.
Kind of like what Jindal’s own constituents have been doing for quite a while now.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.