Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Written by Jeremy Alford
As Louisiana businesses and families continue to wage war against hurricanes, the developing fiscal famine and an ungodly amount of oil, Gov. Bobby Jindal has rebranded himself a disaster general. But to what end?
Written by Jeremy Alford
As Louisiana businesses and families continue to wage war against hurricanes, the developing fiscal famine and an ungodly amount of oil, Gov. Bobby Jindal has rebranded himself a disaster general. But to what end?
"You may be thankful that 20 years from now when you are sitting by the fireplace with your grandson on your knee and he asks you what you did in the great World War II, you won't have to cough, shift him to the other knee and say, Well, your granddaddy shoveled shit in Louisiana.'"
- Gen. George S. Patton to the Third Army, June 5, 1944
In late May, roughly one month after BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, Gov. Bobby Jindal kicked his highly touted book deal to the curb. Regnery Publishing, a D.C.-based house of unabashed conservative titles from writers like Ted Nugent and Newt Gingrich, took it well and issued a statement of support for the "governor's commitment to focus 150 percent of his attention on the BP oil spill." Statistical improbabilities aside, the postponement of the July release date gives Jindal an opportunity to do some rewrites - you know, if he has time.
(And he does. Just because Jindal has boots on the ground doesn't mean he has forsaken politics. In early June, the same day President Barack Obama announced a $20 billion compensation guarantee from BP, Jindal had his campaign committee send $3,500 to Nikki Haley, a candidate for governor in South Carolina, according to campaign finance records in that state. As for other fundraising-related activities taking place during the BP drama, we'll have to wait until next January, since Louisiana requires only annual reports during off election years.)
For starters, the title of Jindal's proposed book is kind of long: Real Hope, Real Change: New Conservative Solutions to Rescue America. Additionally, and more important, it's understandable that Jindal would want to change the Washington Way - who wouldn't? - but the persona he's building back at home right now as a steady-handed leader during times of crises is far more fascinating than any of the politics he's shown us in the past. Jindal, for his part, may choose not to include his journey as conquering hero through national and man-made disasters in his book. And that's fine, because statewide, regional and national media outlets are lapping up the image like a final meal and regurgitating the story line en masse.
There is definitely a public record. During the past few weeks alone, The Advocate has declared that "action on leak helps Jindal," and The Times-Picayune reported that "Jindal is showing masterful PR skills" and that his "image is polished by Gulf oil spill." CBS News broadcast a story predicting the continued crisis mode would "restore Jindal's rising GOP star," and The Washington Times opined that "Jindal, unlike BP and the Obama administration, is taking action." Many of the mainstream media accounts inevitably make some kind of war or battle reference, which says more about the effectiveness of Jindal's press team than it does about the tenacity of a skinny Rhodes Scholar with no military experience who was reared in the suburbs of Baton Rouge.
By the look of it, Team Jindal started pushing war-related themes in speeches and press releases last month. On June 14, Jindal joined seafood interests and representatives from the restaurant industry at Acme Oyster House in New Orleans. He said then, "There is no doubt we are in a war to stop this oil from invading our marsh. I stressed to the president that we must intensify efforts in the war against this oil spill." Over the next three days, the governor gave speeches about the "war against this oil" and issued press releases inviting the feds to "join the war." President Barack Obama has played the war card, too, but it's the governor who has benefited from the language and used it best. In a speech from Plaquemines Parish, Jindal continued, "We are in a war here - we are in a war against this oil that absolutely threatens our way of life." On June 23, July 1 and in recent weeks, the same rhetoric has persisted - and been repeated by reporters.
There's no doubt Jindal has seen just as much, but probably more, tragedy and heartache than most other Louisiana governors - with a knowing nod, of course, to the Queen Bee, Acadiana's own Kathleen Blanco. Jindal, though, not only inherited the nightmarish aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which blew in under Blanco, but he also faced his own tidal challenges in 2008 with Gustav and Ike. The damage was widespread, from homes lost in lower Terrebonne to families without power for days in the Capital City. Jindal showed decisive leadership, won critical praise and offered voters something of a firmer voice during an otherwise bleak time. It stood in stark contrast to the performance of the Blanco administration during the sister storms of 2005.
It's easy to forget this tidbit, but Jindal likewise oversaw among the largest evacuations in U.S. history with Gustav and Ike; more than 2 million people were relocated, and only minor problems cropped up. It was all enough to gray hair, but it was only the first of many personal trails to come for Jindal during his first few years in office. On Feb. 24, 2009, Jindal delivered the official Republican response to Obama's joint congressional address. Simply put, it was widely panned and a critical failure. While it may have been funny to see Jindal compared to Kenneth the page, it was undoubtedly a miserable experience for the governor, having been touted as a possible veep or presidential contender on future GOP ballots.
Within the next few months, everything would change, including the composition of Jindal's top brass.
~ LONELY AT THE TOP ~
On April 20, 2010, when BP's rig ended lives and began spewing oil into the Gulf, Jindal's political fortunes changed, and his administration - as well as Louisiana - entered another dramatic chapter. It's surprising, however, how many of Jindal's troops are unwilling to follow him into battle.
Technically there are 14 positions in Jindal's cabinet - and six have been vacated since January 2008, including the secretaries of environmental quality, labor, social services and transportation. Commissioner of Administration Angèle Davis and Health Secretary Alan Levine are the latest to leave, and both are scheduled to work their final days in August. During the past two and half years, there have also been another eight exits from Jindal's executive staff, including the director of intergovernmental affairs, director of community programs, two different executive counsels, an ethics administrator, legislative liaison and highway safety director. Most recently, Chief of Staff Timmy Teepell announced he's taking a three-month leave in August to help other Republican governors navigate the approaching election cycle.
That's more than a dozen inner sanctum departures in just two and a half years, a figure that approaches what two-term governors begin to experience at some point during their encore. Joshua Stockley, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, says Jindal's approval rating, which hovers around the mid 70s, has probably helped deter concerns that might plague an unpopular governor. "One of the reasons we don't see more attention being given to these resignations is because voters overwhelmingly approve of the job the governor is doing," he says. "He's very popular and is experiencing a bit of a public relations bump, ironically, from this disaster. I think most people aren't even noticing the resignations."
While Teepell's temporary departure speaks more to his reputation as Jindal's chief political architect, the resignations of Davis and Levine are made of something deeper. All three, however, were announced in early July, just as Jindal had painfully buried a $1 billion budget shortfall and started work on solving a subsequent $2 billion shortfall. That a deepwater drilling rig exploded and caused one of Louisiana's worst ecological disasters ever, and was followed by a federal moratorium on certain exploration activities and jobs, doesn't help the forecast much. "Who wants to preside over the demise of an economy?" asks one longtime lobbyist, laughing. "You won't have a career after it's done. There's no telling how big the shortfall is going to be now after the oil, Avondale closing down and whatever comes next."
Turnover, without a doubt, can cause some serious administrative problems, not limited to continuity. But Jim Brandt, executive director of the Public Affairs Research Council, says there haven't been many bumps. In fact, there are many signs that the Jindal administration plans for resignations - when possible - maybe weeks before any public announcement is made, he says. For example, Jindal had a replacement lined up for Levine almost immediately after he announced his own resignation. Bruce Greenstein, formerly the managing director of health care technology for Microsoft, was on deck.
The Jindal administration is also a big believer of promoting from within - to the point that it's almost dizzying. When Jindal's former executive counsel Jimmy Faircloth resigned in July 2009, he was replaced with Labor Secretary Tim Barfield. When Barfield left in December 2009, Stephen Waguespack gave up being deputy chief of staff to take over. Former Louisiana Recovery Authority Director Paul Rainwater then relinquished his gig to become deputy chief of staff. But now that Davis and Teepell are leaving, Rainwater will become the commissioner of administration and Waguespack the chief of staff.
Similar scenarios played out when Jindal filled the top spots at the departments of transportation and social services. Even for his legislative liaison, Jindal plucked Scott Angelle from his secretarial duties at the Department of Natural Resources and also later appointed him interim lieutenant governor when Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor of New Orleans earlier this year. "There really has been a lot of change at the top," says Brandt. "But I don't sense that there's been any major problems. They always seem to have a plan and have adapted well. It's obviously been all thought out."
As for Jindal, after all of the national political hype, one terrible hurricane season and now an insufferable economic and ecological crisis, he's still around. His underlings, meanwhile, don't share the same level of public accountability and are free to pack it up at any time. Stockley says he actually wonders why it doesn't happen more often. "I think we all forget how extremely stressful and demanding these cabinet jobs can be," he says. "It's not really amenable to a long and healthy career."
~ THE POPULIST GENERAL ~
It's no secret that Jindal has likewise crafted an image of himself as a modern-day populist. During his historic 2008 campaign for governor, Jindal constructed the necessary divide to pull this off, with the people on one side and the political elite - in this case, Louisiana's corrupt political past - on the other. Today, he's communicating with the middle-class and working poor like no other politician in the state, traveling to small villages and backroad hamlets few of us have ever heard of or visited. The governor might as well be standing in the back of a flatbed truck in town squares, sweating and rolling up his sleeves as he rails against Big Oil, small paychecks and his political enemies. In a way, he is - and nowhere was that more evident than at last week's anti-moratorium rally in Lafayette.
It was held to show opposition to the federal government's ban on deepwater drilling, and the rally drew roughly 11,000 people to the Cajundome, according to the event's organizers, with another several thousand watching on their computer screens.
The gathering garnered national media attention, rallied opposition forces and a response from the administration of President Barack Obama - even if it was a simple restatement of the fed's stance on the issue.
Jindal took center stage at the rally and received a hero's welcome as he played half-populist governor, half-wartime general to the audience. "I want us to send a clear message to Washington , D.C., today - our people don't want a BP check, our people don't want an unemployment check, our people want this arbitrary moratorium to end so they can go back to work," Jindal said in his speech. "We are here in the heartland of south Louisiana, Cajun Country. Our oil and gas industry has been flourishing here for decades. Sure, there have been hard times and setbacks, but for every setback, we have worked to make a comeback."
Folksy wisdom was in no way in short supply. "We will use Cajun ingenuity and just plain good old-fashioned hard work to get this industry running again," Jindal said. "We know that Cajuns are the rig managers, the toolpushers, the drillers, the roughnecks, the roustabouts - and even the owners and office workers - that produce the energy that fuels our nation."
In the rally's aftermath, and in some respects as a result of its impact, a number of coordinated efforts are gearing up to influence public opinion, lobby lawmakers and offer assistance to those strapped with financial woes forced upon them by the moratorium and BP Deepwater Horizon rig explosion. While most of the efforts are coming from private industry - chiefly oil and gas associations - Jindal will more than likely be able to take credit for the momentum that's building.
For example, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, among the state's more authoritative lobbies, has led a coalition of chambers of commerce, trade organizations and civic groups in forming Gulf Citizens United, a 501(c)(4), which is a status that will allow the nonprofit to engage in lobbying and political campaigning. LABI President Dan Juneau says the initial goal is to raise $250,000 by the end of this month and launch a print media campaign in the Washington, D.C., marketplace over the next few days as Congress completes its final week before adjourning for the traditional summer break. Then it's another goal of $250,000 for the war chest, if the support is there, he adds, and more on-the-ground advocacy on the Hill when lawmakers convene their work after Labor Day.
By becoming an active participant in the policy process, and by making constructive noise, GCU's backers hope to pick up a few big headlines and soundbites. "We will maximize free media and additional research to polish our message about the losses from the moratorium and the threat of losing security energy supplies in the U.S.," Juneau says of GCU's outreach and mission. "Our focus is solely on the blanket moratorium and its unnecessarily negative economic impacts." Although federal tax law allows a 501(c)(4) to keep much of its fiscal information out of public view, Juneau says GCU's board is "fully committed to transparency," and it will issue a final accounting of transactions.
~ THE SCIENCE WAR ~
To profess unequivocally that Gov. Bobby Jindal somehow fumbled his duties in the wake of the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion would be a disservice. But to suggest he stormed the bunkers and went all Rambo on the situation would be another ill turn to recent history. When it comes to planning and response, there's a strong argument to be made that Jindal has called in some weak commands. In particular, he may have placed too much emphasis on building sand berms and rock jetties along Louisiana's historic barrier island line as a way to block incoming oil.
Earlier this month, Discovery News posted photos of constructed berms - photographed by an unnamed federal employee, the organization reported - essentially failing, sinking and being washed away by ocean tides after only two weeks of exposure. After the pictures were released, Jindal made trips along the coast with national reporters and issued a press release about personally standing on the berms.
Dr. Len Bahr, formerly a staffer in the Governor's Office of Coastal Activities and now a blogger and critic of Jindal's plans whose appears in increasing regularity in national publications, says the berm push was more about politics than science - it was more about acting than not acting and putting the federal government, maybe even Obama directly, on the hook for being indecisive. Indeed, it took a lot of jockeying to get the berm project going, and Jindal has been credited with twisting arms and being persuasive.
In what amounts to quite a lengthy list, Bahr says the berms have many shortfalls: They could squander limited sand resources; increase the depth and reduce the friction of the bottom profile; increase the erosive power of tidal exchange; steal dollars from and interest in less dramatic but more effective measures; exacerbate the ongoing tension and lack of cooperation between federal and state agencies; inject political overtones in what should be objective technical discussions; jeopardize the credibility of the overall mission to protect and restore the Mississippi River Delta; and - most telling - fail to actually reduce the risk of oiling local marshes.
He also predicts they won't survive the ongoing hurricane season. "This is ironic in that the time required to construct them extends well beyond the hurricane season," Bahr says. "Hopefully, the source of the oil will be shut down long before the sand berm project is complete. This makes the aggressive selling of the project suspicious and suggests a hidden motive involving massive dredging contracts." Thus far, the state has lined the coast with 3,000 linear feet of sand berms, and another 600,000 cubic yards of dredge material is waiting to be placed amid continued fights with the feds and BP.
There are indications, though, that the government - and Jindal - could and should act independently and faster, and then work the details out later. For example, Okaloosa County, the Florida Panhandle home of Destin's storied beaches and Choctawhatchee Bay, officially gave the finger to the feds last month. After being repeatedly blocked by the White House and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from implementing its own protection and clean-up plans, the Okaloosa County Commission held an emergency meeting to approve a series of "hands on" ordinances and initiatives to safeguard its beaches and estuaries.
None of the measures was endorsed by the federal government. County plans include an underwater "air curtain" that would in theory form a wall of air bubbles to push oil away from the shoreline. While the initiative has been rejected by the federal government, county officials say they have their own tests proving the air wall would be effective.
Then there's the situation that occurred in Plaquemines Parish around the same time. Six vacuum barges, which were to be positioned along Plaquemines' coastline to suck up oil, were shut down by the U.S. Coast Guard. Why? Because there weren't enough life jackets and fire extinguishers onboard to satisfy federal laws. "We're disgusted that once again, instead of helping, the Coast Guard is throwing up a road block," Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said at the time. "I thought I heard the president say we were at war. Would you shut down tanks to check for fire extinguishers if you were being shot at?"
With yet one more war reference on the books, it's important to point out that Jindal still has to win his war against BP and the feds. He's winning the PR war, as evidenced by the rally in Lafayette and recent media coverage, but it may not be enough. Hurricane recovery is still lagging on many levels, the current season is far from over, the economy is about to get worse, and policy promises ranging from ethics reform to fiscal accountability are unfulfilled. For now, Jindal can only take refuge in his political medals, which he has rightly earned for a string of disasters he has suffered through. The medals, for sure, stick thanks to unheard-of approval ratings. But that's all he has - and for the circles that Jindal runs in, meaning those of warring politicians, it's practically the only kind of victory that matters.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.
Bobby's War Rhetoric
If you've noticed that an increasing amount of media reports about Gov. Bobby Jindal and the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico includes language about war and fighting, that could be due to a concerted effort by the administration to toughen up its image. Considering the following:
June 14: Jindal joins seafood interests and representatives from the restaurant industry at Acme Oyster House in New Orleans. He says then, "There is no doubt we are in a war to stop this oil from invading our marsh. I stressed to the president that we must intensify efforts in the war against this oil spill."
June 15: After taking a boat out to Bay Jimmy, Jindal returns to Grand Isle for a press conference. "When I met with the president in Mississippi yesterday, I stressed to him again that we need the federal government and BP to intensify their efforts and treat this oil spill like a war. We need to be using everything we have in this fight to save our coast. ... We are in a war to protect our coast, and failure is not an option. ... We need action to win this war."
June 16: Jindal takes a helicopter out to the northern end of the Chandeleur Island chain to inspect state-led dredging operations. Almost immediately, his team issued a press release. "We are absolutely in a war to protect our way of life, and seeing all of the supply ships and the huge dredger operation out there blowing sediment to create sand boom shows just how intense our efforts must be in this battle. ... The bottom line is that we know the president is good at speeches, but we need the federal government to understand that we are in a war to protect our way of life." During a press conference at Fort Pike later in the day, he lashes out again at the feds. "The federal government needs to do their inspection and certification process quickly and ensure these barges operate safely. We cannot afford to lose weeks or even days in our war against this oil."
June 17: From Buras, Jindal checks on the status of eight barges that had been held at dock for more than 24 hours by the U.S. Coast Guard. "This is why we keep stressing that we need to see more of a sense of urgency from the Coast Guard, federal officials and BP. We are in a war here - we are in a war against this oil that absolutely threatens our way of life."
June 23: Press release headline reads, "Gov. Jindal to Feds: No Time for More Studies, Act Now & Restart Dredging Operations so LA Can Win this War against the Oil Spill."
June 24: At a rally in Houma, the governor declares, "That is why we are here today. That is why this rally is called an Economic Survival Rally.' We are in a fight for our survival against the oil spill disaster, and that struggle has only been compounded by the second disaster of this arbitrary and capricious shut down of drilling off of our coast."
June 29: On his meeting with Vice President Joe Biden, Jindal said in a press release that, "The overarching message that I told the vice president today is that the federal government needs to increase their sense of urgency. They need to treat this spill like a war and get in it to win it. We're here to defend our way of life."
July 1: Press release headline reads, "Gov. Jindal Calls on Feds to Stop Obstructing, Join the War to Protect Louisiana's Coast."
July 6: After a meeting with local officials in New Orleans: "We need the federal government to get in this war to win it. They continue to reject our plans while they put forward no plan of their own. This is not acceptable. They need to either lead, follow or get out of the way."
July 15: Upon hearing reports that the oil flowing from the BP well in the Gulf had been stopped: "We have been fighting a war against this oil for months now, and we know our battles don't end even when the well is capped." The headline reads, "Governor Bobby Jindal: Too Early to Declare Victory."
July 16: During a press conference in Grand Isle on the reopening of recreational fishing, Jindal repeated the same line. "We have been fighting a war against this oil for months now, and we know our battles don't end even when the well is capped."
July 21: At a rally in Lafayette on the drilling moratorium, the governor announces, "Many times in this disaster I have been asked if Louisiana will ever recover. Will we ever be the same? Will we still be Sportsmen's Paradise? Will our communities and our families triumph over this catastrophe? The answer to these questions is simply Yes.' ... We must stand up and fight against this, just as we did the first time around." - JA