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by Jeff Fecke | February 27, 2009 • After listening to Bobby Jindal’s speech, I couldn’t help but think of Harold Ford, Jr.

In a way, that’s unfair to Ford — his 2000 keynote at the Democratic National Convention was a far sharper speech than the one Jindal gave on Tuesday. But the outcomes of those two speeches will, I suspect, be the same.

Jeff Fecke is a freelance writer who lives in Eagan, Minnesota.In addition to his own blog, Blog of the Moderate Left, he also contributes to Alas, a Blog, Minnesota Campaign Report, and AlterNet. Fecke has appeared as a guest on the “Today” show, the Alan Colmes radio show, and the Mark Heaney Show. Fecke is divorced, and the father of one really terrific daughter. His debut novel, The Valkyrie’s Tale, is now available.

We forget it now, but Ford went into his 2000 keynote with the same kind of buzz that Barack Obama had in 2004. He was being touted as the future of the Democratic Party, a likely candidate for the presidency in 2008 or 2012 or so. He was only 30 at the time, but he’d been in the House for two terms already. Add to it the fact that he was African-American, and you had a potential future superstar.

But like most things the Democrats touched in 2000, Ford’s speech did not turn to gold, but rather a sort of silverish aluminum. It was a decent speech, but not transcendent, and certainly not equal to the hype it had received in the days leading up to the event. Ford’s aura was dented severely; by 2006, he was running for — and losing — the Tennessee Senate seat vacated by Bill Frist. Today, he’s mostly known among Democrats for being a Joe Lieberman type — reflexively anti-Democratic, and far too solicitous of Republicans. The idea of a President Harold Ford is ludicrous now — a sharp slide that began in the summer of 2000.

Bobby Jindal can be forgiven for not giving a great response speech — nobody ever does. After the pageantry of a Joint Convention, the response will pale by comparison. After Christie Todd Whitman’s attempt at having an audience failed, responders have, by and large, simply talked to the camera. And that will never have the electricity or vitality of a president addressing Congress.
But even by the standards of minority party responses, Jindal’s was terrible — Bob Dole in 1996-level terrible, even worse than Tim Kaine in 2006. His cadence was odd and sing-songy — reminiscent of Fred Rogers – and he seemed to be talking down to Americans, rather than talking to us. His life story could be inspiring, the sort of story Barack Obama built around in his 2004 keynote, but the anecdote he chose — that America has a lot of stuff in its supermarkets — struck a discordant note in a time when many can’t afford those things.

And then, of course, came the discordant note to end all discordant notes — using the federal government’s non-response to Hurricane Katrina to prove that we don’t need the government.
Leave aside whether Jindal’s anecdote was or was not truthful — it’s beside the point. The fact is that Jindal couldn’t have been more off if he’d cited Michael Jordan’s clutch performance in the 1997 finals as a reason why Jordan is the worst basketball player of all time.

Katrina, and the feckless government response to it, began a sea change in the way Americans view their government. Yes, it’s nice to hate government in the abstract — nobody likes paying taxes, having to get a permit to build a deck, or having to get their license renewed. But darn it, when the floodwater’s innundating your city, nobody else has the ability to help comfort the afflicted. When we give up on actually worrying about making government work, we get the aftermath of Katrina — thousands dead, tens of thousands forced through degradation and hunger and thirst and pain, and a government standing by and doing nothing. Yes, in a crisis it probably would have made sense to be able to put substandard boats in the water to help people (although one might realize that sending a boat with no life preservers out into the lower ninth ward could lead to disaster, should that boat capsize), but those boats were needed because the federal government wasn’t ready to respond. Had FEMA had its ducks in a row, no rickety, uninsured rowboats would have been required.

Jindal followed his brilliant anecdote by mocking the idea of volcano monitoring, because, I mean, who needs to worry about whether volcanoes will erupt? Not me! Therefore who cares? Am I right?

No, government can’t — and shouldn’t — do everything. But it can and should do some things. Ultimately, the government is the ultimate insurance policy — an organization created through collective action, designed to pool and share and mitigate risk among all its citizens. It is the fundamental function of government to provide basic security. And now Jindal and the hard right of the GOP is mocking even that.

The GOP is in a bad place right now, akin to where the Democrats were in 1981. But at least the Democrats then recognized that they were in trouble. Even so, it took Democrats twelve years to go back to the drawing board and nominate a more conservative candidate in the person of Bill Clinton. The country has drifted leftward since then, thanks to the dramatic incompetence of George W. Bush. Now, the GOP will need to find a way to nominate a more liberal candidate.

That man is not Bobby Jindal, nor anyone of his ideological ilk. The GOP could turn to Sarah Palin or Jindal or someone similar in 2012, but they’ll be simply recapitulating the nomination of Walker Mondale in 1984. The country has rejected flat-earth, know-nothing economics. Until the GOP recognizes that, it’s going to be a long stay in the wilderness.