Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was tapped to respond to President Obama's speech last night. Even though I was groggy from having stuffed myself with jambalaya, red wine and king cake at the Grace Church Mardi Gras dinner earlier in the evening, I managed to stay awake to watch him. I was curious to see this much hyped possible 2012 presidential aspirant, and hoped he might, in taking on what would likely be a thankless task, at least have something interesting to say. Alas, it was not to be.
He began (an edited* text of his speech is here) by acknowledging that it was "a great moment in the history of our Republic" when "our first African-American President stepped forward to address the state of our union." He then quickly drew a parallel between Obama's Kenyan father and his own Indian immigrant parents, and quoted his father, who "had seen extreme poverty" in India, as saying, while surveying the goods on sale at a supermarket, "Americans can do anything." This became the oft-repeated catchphrase of his speech. Unfortunately, it happens not to be true. There are many things Americans can't do: defeat a popular insurgency in Southeast Asia, consistently realize annual ten per cent returns on invested assets, pronounce French correctly, and so on.
The catchphrase then quickly got qualified to: "Americans can do anything, but their government can hardly do anything right." To illustrate why "those of us who lived through Hurricane Katrina...have our doubts" about government's ability to "rescue us from the economic storms raging all around us", he offered this anecdote:
During Katrina, I visited Sheriff Harry Lee, a Democrat and a good friend of mine. When I walked into his makeshift office I’d never seen him so angry. He was yelling into the phone: “Well, I’m the Sheriff and if you don’t like it you can come and arrest me!” I asked him: “Sheriff, what’s got you so mad?” He told me that he had put out a call for volunteers to come with their boats to rescue people who were trapped on their rooftops by the floodwaters. The boats were all lined up ready to go - when some bureaucrat showed up and told them they couldn’t go out on the water unless they had proof of insurance and registration. I told him, “Sheriff, that’s ridiculous.” And before I knew it, he was yelling into the phone: “Congressman Jindal is here, and he says you can come and arrest him too!” Harry just told the boaters to ignore the bureaucrats and start rescuing people.If this was meant to show that government can't respond effectively to a crisis, it falls on its face. Sure, the "bureaucrat" who wasn't going to let the rescue boats sail was an agent of government (whether federal, state or local Jindal didn't say), but so were Sheriff Lee and Jindal himself. So, the rescue effort wasn't thwarted by government, after all, and may never have been organized in the first place had it not been for the Sheriff. Petty, rule-obsessed "bureaucrats" are not unique to government. There are plenty of them in the private sector as well:
Jindal later recited a laundry list of what he considered objectionable or unnecessary programs for which funds are appropriated in the recently enacted stimulus legislation. One of these, which he especially stressed with obvious distaste, was "volcano monitoring." Perhaps he would like to discuss this topic with his GOP colleague and possible 2012 rival, Governor Palin.
Update: Paul Krugman had this to say on his blog. (Thanks to Rob Lenihan for the link.)
3.1 update: It seems Jindal's story about being with Sheriff Lee "[d]uring Katrina" and at the time the rescue boats were sent out is a fabrication. (Thanks to Michael Simmons--see comments to this post--for the tip.)
*The State website says this is a "full text"; however, it contains many ellipses and doesn't include the list of programs funded by the stimulus legislation to which Governor Jindal voiced objections in his speech.