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Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have already been tabbed as among the front-runners for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. Not surprisingly, the narrative you will hear will present them as adversaries.
But Rubio and Jindal are currently allies in a rather risky effort to redefine the Republican Party’s image and resurrect a once valuable brand that has been degraded over the past six years. Whether they will succeed before the next presidential contest is unclear; it’s also unclear whether one, or both, will be damaged politically by their efforts.
Oddly, Rubio and Jindal are more similar than different.
Born less than two weeks apart in 1971, both men have parents who were immigrants to this country — from Cuba and India — and both interned for GOP members of Congress (Rubio for Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Jindal for former Louisiana Rep. Jim McCrery).
Both Republicans had less than scintillating performances, at least stylistically, delivering a State of the Union response — Jindal’s kindergarten-like delivery was in 2009, while Rubio’s water-reach moment occurred Tuesday night. (Of course, Rubio’s reach for bottled water was funny, a bit embarrassing and completely irrelevant to his political future.)
Academically, Jindal’s credentials are more impressive. While Rubio graduated from the University of Florida and holds a law degree from the University of Miami School of Law, Jindal double-majored at Brown University, graduating with honors in both public policy and biology.
He was accepted by both Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School but turned both down to be a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where he studied political science and health policy.
Both Rubio and Jindal proved to be successful politically at relatively young ages. The Florida senator was elected to the state legislature when he was 28. Five years later, he became speaker of the state House and in 2010, Rubio won a three-way race for the Senate after first scaring the state’s sitting governor out of the Republican primary.
At only 24, Jindal was appointed to run Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals. Two years later, he was executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare.
Jindal narrowly lost a gubernatorial bid in 2003 (underperforming in conservative areas in North Louisiana), but he was elected to Congress in 2004, at age 33, and as governor in 2007. Four years later, Jindal won re-election with two-thirds of the vote.
But to some in the GOP, the two candidates’ credentials are a sign that they are part of the “establishment” and their success to this point doesn’t guarantee anything. In fact, it makes them targets, both within the party and to liberals and Democrats who would prefer to destroy them now rather than face them in 2016 or 2020.
Paul Mirengoff of Power Line, one of the more well-read conservative websites, has already posted a piece titled, “Is Marco Rubio the New Darling of the Liberal Commentariat?” He warned that Rubio will lose his luster among conservatives if he “serves as the front-man for the kind of immigration reform being pushed by liberal Democrats (plus Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham).”
Meanwhile, liberal Huffington Post blogger Robert Elisberg’s recent post, “Marco Rubio’s High Wire Act,” ended with the assertion that the Florida Republican isn’t a new voice for the GOP, “Just the same, cold-hearted, mean-spirited, empty one, filling the echo chamber with his bunko act.”
Jindal seemed to be itching for a fight recently when he called the GOP “the stupid party” and pleaded for Republicans to “talk like adults.”
So far, conservatives haven’t berated the Louisiana governor for that remark, but the devil is in the details and if Jindal disappoints them on an issue or two, he will surely become a target.
Liberals, of course, are already attacking him. Joan Walsh’s story in Salon is titled “The Shame That Is Bobby Jindal,” while Mother Jones’ report is titled “Bobby Jindal Thinks the GOP Isn’t Right-Wing Enough.”
Rubio and Jindal seem willing to take the GOP’s damaged brand problem head-on, which offers both high risk and high reward. But most smart Republicans believe the risk is necessary.
As one GOP strategist told me recently, “It’s critically important that both Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal move to the forefront of the Republican Party now. The danger to both of them is that they get 36 months down the road and get stuck driving a car with no engine. It’s time to rebuild the car while we still have time.”
Already proclaimed by Time magazine as his party’s political “savior” and by The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza as “the new leader of the Republican Party,” Rubio is still relatively new to national politics, and he has some baggage from Florida that critics can exploit.
Jindal lacks Rubio’s charisma, and as a two-term governor, he has inevitably made some decisions that will produce criticism. And he has no foreign policy experience.
Smart Republican insiders believe that Rubio and Jindal are up to the task of remaking the GOP, but there are plenty within the party who will find reason to complain and resist. And the national media always enjoy taking down a young politician. Those are reasons enough to watch and see how the two Republicans fare over the next two years.
Stuart Rothenberg (@stupolitics) is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report (rothenbergpoliticalreport.com).