Gov. Bobby Jindal's task tonight, to rebut President Obama's first address to a joint session of Congress, was a thankless one. But it still constituted an opportunity for the Louisiana Republican to show that he could handle the national spotlight, present himself as a fresh face of the Republican Party, and stand up to the current president oratorically.
On each of these three hurdles, he came up short. Both Democrats and Republicans alike panned Jindal's rebuttal in terms that were decidedly harsh: "amateurish," "laughable" and, most commonly, "a missed opportunity."
"After watching Jindal," one Democratic strategist emailed, "I'd pay a lot of money to be back watching a Palin speech."
"Awkward with capital A," emailed another.
The punditry was equally brutal. Part of the problem was the crux of Jindal's address, which consisted almost entirely of red meat for conservatives. The Governor offered criticism for anything other than tax cuts and ridiculed government spending for items that are either widely supported -- "$8 billion for high-speed rail" -- or seemingly essential -- "$140 million for something called 'volcano monitoring'" (isn't Louisiana Exhibit A in the need for natural disaster warning?).
"You know, I think Bobby Jindal is a very promising politician," said New York Times columnist David Brooks, appearing on PBS, "and I oppose the stimulus because I thought it was poorly drafted. But to come up at this moment in history with a stale "government is the problem," "we can't trust the federal government" -- it's just a disaster for the Republican Party. The country is in a panic right now. They may not like the way the Democrats have passed the stimulus bill, but that idea ... that government is going to have no role, the federal government has no role in this ... it's just a form of nihilism. It's just not where the country is, it's not where the future of the country is. There's an intra-Republican debate."
And yet, much of the critique of Jindal's address focused on his hokey, folksy, seemingly-forced tone and vernacular. The Governor, who has never held court on the national stage before -- remember, his speech at the Republican convention was called off after Hurricane Gustav made landfall -- showed a bit of wetness behind the ears. And the commentators let him have it, even on Fox News.
BRIT HUME: "The speech read a lot better than it sounded. This was not Bobby Jindal's greatest oratorical moment."
NINA EASTON: "The delivery was not exactly terrific."
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: "Jindal didn't have a chance. He follows Obama, who in making speeches, is in a league of his own. He's in a Reagan-esque league. ... [Jindal] tried the best he could."
JUAN WILLIAMS: "It came off as amateurish, and even the tempo in which he spoke was sing-songy. He was telling stories that seemed very simplistic and almost childish.
All said, the speech was received with disappointment by conservatives who have looked to the Governor as the Republican Party's next star. Jindal's background and resume -- he was raised by Indian-immigrant parents and has an undisputed intellect -- seem, at least superficially, like key pillars upon which to forge a new kind of GOP candidacy. But other politicians have been panned for their State of the Union rebuttals in the past and managed to achieve national success, including Gov. Tim Kaine, who now heads the DNC, and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who appears poised to be nominated Secretary of Health and Human Services.