In February 2009, just a month after President Barack Obama was sworn into office, Republicans sought to rebut his first address to Congress with a rising star of their own: Bobby Jindal.
Already there was talk of 2012 for the young Louisiana governor. Hurricane Gustav forced him to cancel his address at the Republican National Convention the summer before, but the Republican rebuttal would thrust him squarely into the national spotlight.
“You elected Republicans to champion limited government, fiscal discipline and personal responsibility,” Jindal said in his address. “Instead, Republicans went along with earmarks and big government spending in Washington. Republicans lost your trust, and rightly so.”
The spotlight was harsh. Even fellow conservatives criticized the speech, calling “his message — that federal spending is not the answer to the nation’s economic problems — uninspired.”
Now, five years later, Jindal is back and eyeing the 2016 ticket, this time with a message that higher spending on defense is the answer to the foreign policy flare-ups plaguing the Obama administration.
“The reality is that there is less need to use the military when it is feared and respected. The best approach to reducing the level of global risk would be to move decisively to rebuild the tools of military power,” Jindal said during a speech Monday at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.
“The best way to avoid battle is to prepare for it.”
Unveiling a national security blueprint he created with former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent called “Rebuilding the American Defense Consensus,” Jindal’s central recommendation is to tie 4 percent of GDP to defense spending.
Calling for increased federal spending is a tough play for the self-proclaimed fiscal conservative, but it’s perhaps his best one.
In two major speeches this week to two very different audiences — at AEI, where’s he’s a familiar figure, and at The Citadel, in Charleston, S.C., where he’s a virtual unknown — Jindal tried to distinguish himself in the 2016 field as the wonk candidate.
For years, The Citadel has been a popular stop for Republican presidential hopefuls seeking to burnish their national security credentials and in both venues, Jindal’s messaging was consistent with other Republicans who claim that Obama has weakened America’s standing in the world. But Jindal went further, tying his criticism of the president’s handling of current security crises to cuts in the defense budget.
While Jindal doesn’t have strong credentials on national security, among the potential 2016 frontrunners he has a wealth of wonkish experience — from Ivy League Rhodes scholar to former President George W. Bush’s Assistant Secretary for Health and Human Services. Within three years in the Bush administration, he was elected to Congress, where he served on the Homeland Security Committee. Three years later, he was elected governor. During Hurricane Gustav in 2008, he coordinated the relocation of 1.9 million people — the largest evacuation in the history of the U.S., according to his office. You may have a hard time picturing Jindal as the next commander in chief, but his experience makes the case for an effective manager, a guy who “gets it,” as Talent put it.
During his speeches this week, Jindal seemed to recognize this sales strategy necessitates him reconciling his past calls to rein in federal spending with his new proposal to tie 4 percent of GDP to defense. He criticized the Obama administration for spending so much overall, while spending less on the military.
“Now, I am a fiscal conservative,” he said in his remarks. “But within the arena of national defense, the need now is for more funding, not less. That funding must be smarter – not motivated by domestic political priorities, but by what real threats America faces.”
“We need to continue to shrink government,” he said Monday at AEI — but in other ways. “We do need a lot of cuts in the other portion of the federal budget.”
“We’re not calling for getting to 4 percent of GDP overnight … I don’t think the Pentagon’s capable of spending that money well, even if we were to give them that money today,” he continued. “I don’t think that we simply give the Pentagon a blank check.”
But in his paper he cautioned that “if Department of Defense funding drops consistently below 4 percent of GDP, it should be a taken as a warning that another cycle of inefficient, up and down budgeting is impending.”
The U.S. currently spends approximately 2.9 percent of GDP on defense, according to Jindal’s policy paper. Last year, the U.S. spent roughly 3.8 percent of GDP on defense, to the tune of $618.7 billion, according to Politico’s crunching of World Bank data. The last time the U.S. spent at least 4 percent of its GDP on defense was 2012, at 4.2 percent, down from 4.6 percent in 2011 and 4.7 percent in 2010.
But Jindal’s proposal to tie the defense budget to the GDP isn’t new. He joins the tradition of Republican “everything but defense” fiscal conservatives and other GOP frontrunners that have called for increased defense spending. In 2012, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney similarly recommended spending 4 percent of GDP on defense (and was also advised by Talent, according to Politico.) Ezra Klein wrote in 2012 that would amount to a $2 trillion increase in spending over a decade. One analyst ascribed it to a “strategic worldview that more is better.”
But the political climate may be ripe for Jindal’s recommendation, as the Pentagon faces the grim combination of the across-the-board cuts of sequestration and recent threats ranging from Ebola to the Islamic State.
When Obama took office, he tightened defense budgets that ballooned after more than a decade of ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In January of 2012, the Pentagon reduced its budget by $487 billion over the next decade. But when Congress and the administration failed to come to an agreement on the federal budget, they locked in sequester cuts that went into effect on March 1, 2013, forcing the Pentagon to quickly find billions more in savings. Just before the year’s end, the Bipartisan Budget Act granted the Pentagon two years of considerable relief from the budget caps, but the steeper sequester cuts will be re-imposed in October 2016, if Congress doesn’t act.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have long urged Congress to reverse sequestration. And on Sept. 26, Hagel and Dempsey said they’ll be requesting more money from Congress for what is expected to be a years’ long campaign against the Islamic State.
While Jindal acknowledged that Republicans played a role in sequestration, he placed the blame on the administration.
“I think, if they were honest, even the administration would admit that they played a bad game of chicken with the nation’s defense, and we all lost,” he said at AEI.
During a meeting with top military leaders at the Pentagon on Wednesday, Obama reiterated that he wants to create a “leaner and meaner” military.
“We had a chance to talk briefly about defense budget and reforms. We have done some enormous work, and I want to thank everybody sitting around this table to continue to make our forces leaner, meaner, more effective, more tailored to the particular challenges that we’re going to face in the 21st century,” Obama said.
“But we also have to make sure that Congress is working with us to avoid, for example, some of the Draconian cuts that are called for in sequestration, and to make sure that if we’re asking this much of our armed forces, that they’ve got the equipment and the technology that’s necessary for them to be able to succeed at their mission, and that we’re supporting their families at a time when, even after ending one war and winding down another, they continue to have enormous demands placed on them each and every day.”
Bobby Jindal thinks he’s just the wonk for the job.