By selecting Bobby Jindal as his vice presidential running mate, Mitt Romney would be reaching for history, much as John McCain did four years ago. The Louisiana governor — born Piyush Jindal — would be the first Indian American ever to run for the White House on a major party ticket.
But Jindal could not be more different from Sarah Palin, McCain’s pick, who was the first Republican woman nominated for the vice presidency.
While Palin was the antithesis of a policy wonk, Jindal, 41, is a former Rhodes scholar who made his name deep-diving into substantive issues like healthcare. At 24, he was appointed head of Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals, beginning a pattern of firsts and youngests that have marked Jindal’s nearly two decades in public life.
Despite that contrast, however, Jindal could serve Romney in the same manner that Palin boosted McCain in 2008. He is likely to appeal to the social conservative base of the GOP more than the candidate topping the ticket. A convert to Roman Catholicism, Jindal steadfastly opposes same-sex marriage and legal abortion — without exception — supports prayer in the public schools and earns high marks from the National Rifle Assn.
His placement on the ticket could also serve as a one-man rejoinder to the image of the GOP as a province of the rich, white and privileged. Jindal is none of those things.
The son of immigrants from India’s Punjab province, Jindal was born in Baton Rouge three months after his parents arrived in the United States so his mother could attend graduate school at Louisiana State University. (Jindal has released both his birth certificate and evidence his parents immigrated legally to the U.S.)
He took the name Bobby from a character on the “Brady Bunch” and was a stellar student through high school — he was the only member of his class to wear a tie in the senior group photo — at Brown University and during his studies at Oxford University, where he pursued a master’s degree in healthcare policy.
Jindal returned to the United States and a six-figure Washington consulting job with McKinsey & Co., then in 1996 was appointed head of Louisiana’s troubled health agency, overseeing 13,000 employees and 40% of the state budget.
In 2003, at age 32, Jindal ran unsuccessfully for governor, losing to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, in part because of his youth and anger over cuts made while he was running the state health department. After his defeat, Jindal won a seat in Congress from suburban New Orleans. He easily won the governorship four years later -- becoming Louisiana’s first nonwhite chief executive since Reconstruction -- and won reelection last October with 66% of the vote.
Jindal has been widely praised for his steady handling of crises, including Hurricane Gustav in 2008 -- he canceled a scheduled appearance at the GOP national convention to stay home and deal with the mess -- and the 2010 gulf oil spill.
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But he stumbled badly in 2009 when called on to deliver the nationally broadcast Republican response to a speech to Congress by President Obama. Jindal’s sing-song performance was widely panned as off-putting, amateurish and disastrous — and those were the reviews of fellow Republicans.
He has done much better as a Romney surrogate over the last few months, appearing on the Sunday morning talk shows and shadowing Obama on the campaign trail.
Paul Begala, an aide to former President Bill Clinton, recalled how the young, promising Arkansas governor bombed with a long-winded speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Assessing Jindal’s performance back in 2009, Begala called it “a disaster.”
But, he added, perhaps presciently, “You can come back from disaster.”