ST. LOUIS • Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal brought an unexpected message on Saturday to Missouri Republicans who are focused on the national debt: It’s the wrong focus.
“Balancing our government’s books is not what matters most ... (It’s) a nice goal, but that shouldn’t be our primary objective,” Jindal told a packed ballroom at the Renaissance Grand in downtown St. Louis for the Missouri Republican Party’s Lincoln Days.
“We must not become the party of austerity. We must become the party of (economic) growth,” Jindal said. “We have fallen into a trap of believing the world revolves around Washington.”
Jindal, one of the national GOP’s stars and a frequent mention for a future presidential run, capped a series of speakers during the weekend convention who called for fundamental change in the party’s focus after its second straight presidential election loss last year.
Earlier speakers had called for better grass-roots organizing, less focus on divisive social issues in elections, and ending “factionalism” within the party.
But Jindal’s speech challenged a central strategy of today’s national GOP: the focus on fighting for budget austerity against Democratic spending programs.
“America is not the federal government,” said Jindal, prompting applause from the audience of state Republican leaders and supporters.
He said the fight in Washington is between Democrats who “want to be in charge of the federal government so they can expand it” and Republicans who want to be in charge so they “can get it under control.”
While the goal of controlling spending is laudable, he said, he questioned the party’s obsession with Washington issues such as the budget instead of issues such as promoting private enterprise and education reform locally.
“As conservatives, we are falling into these sideshow traps” instead of hammering at the message of economic growth, said Jindal. “We seem to have an obsession with government bookkeeping.”
The annual Lincoln Days convention is designed to bring state Republican leaders and activists together to rally the party. Jindal’s speech was the highlight of a weekend focused largely on disputing claims that the Republican Party is falling apart.
“To quote that great Missourian Mark Twain, reports of our death are greatly exaggerated,” U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., assured the gathering on Friday.
But Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder also reminded the audience that, despite the party’s dominance of the state Legislature, he was the only Republican to win statewide last year. “It’s getting kind of lonely. We need to do something about this.”
Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich, the only Republican running for statewide office next year, pleaded with his fellow Republicans Friday to end what he called “factionalism” between moderates and conservatives. He said conservatives who call moderates RINOs (Republican in Name Only), and moderates who throw around phrases like “right-wing wacko” to describe social conservatives, are all hurting the party.
Also on Friday, conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly stressed the importance of grass-roots organizing. “I think that’s where our party fell down ... last year,” said Schlafly, who collected a lifetime achievement award at this year’s event. “We didn’t have a ground game that could match what Obama was doing. They were very efficient.”
Dave Spence, the Missouri GOP’s unsuccessful candidate for governor last year, told the convention Friday that the key to winning in the future was for Republican candidates to “stay on the topics that win elections,” such as the economy, and not on controversial issues that stir anger.
“The media and the other party want to have you go down the rabbit hole of issues that polarize people,” said Spence. “When you step out in public, stay on the subjects that don’t polarize anyone.”
Spence, perhaps following his own advice, didn’t specify any polarizing issues. But controversial comments about abortion rights in relation to rape have been blamed for the GOP loss in Missouri’s U.S. Senate race between Republican Todd Akin and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.