Sen. David Vitter was strong on Common Core until his political aspirations got in the way.

What is it about Common Core that throws Republican office-seekers into such a  dithering state of confusion?

For a minute there — a few months actually — it looked like Sen. David Vitter had grown a backbone and would stand up to the Tea Party on the Common Core issue.

But no.

In August he was crowing about the virtues of more rigorous education standards in a state with notoriously poor schools. Now, like Gov. Bobby Jindal, whom he aspires to succeed next year, Vitter has flipped 180 degrees.

Rather than embrace national norms now favored by most states, it’s better to let Louisiana develop its own approach, Vitter crows. Why? Because we’ve been so good at raising Louisiana’s standards ourselves?

The cynicism in both the Jindal and Vitter camps is palpable — but somehow Vitter’s about-face is more surprising because the flip-flop seems so unnecessary. It’s hard to believe any Republican can shoulder him aside as he runs for governor — and this at a time when statewide office is really no longer available to Democrats. The business community strongly supports Common Core, but presumably Vitter believes he can take their support for granted.

Jindal’s flip-flop was more understandable because his prospects for staying on the public payroll after he leaves the governor’s mansion are dimmer.

Indeed, it’s tough being Bobby Jindal these days, no matter which Bobby Jindal you’re trying to be. In his desperation to gain anti-Common Core cred, Jindal, preposterously, has seen fit to denounce the Core as a communist menace.

“But centralized planning didn’t work in Russia, it’s not working with our health care system and it won’t work in education,” Jindal declared in an anti-Common Core screed he wrote last spring for USA Today. As television viewers were reminded just yesterday, the governor has rarely missed an opportunity to continue his diatribe.

Meanwhile, back in the Soviet of Louisiana, there’s Jindal’s strenuous effort to defend the petroligarchy from the levee board lawsuit for wrecking the coast, a campaign that has included slandering former levee board member John Barry, the lawsuit’s chief proponent.

And the alternative to industry financing coastal reclamation? The federal government, of course, which already pays proportionately more of Louisiana’s public sector costs than it does for any other state in the union except Mississippi. (That doesn’t quite square with Jindal’s claim to be a states’ rights, pay-your-own-way kind of guy, but no matter.)

The recent midterm elections dealt a withering blow to what’s left of the Obama presidency but also were a setback to the Tea Party, which Jindal and Vitter are now courting so assiduously. The adults in the Republican Party wrested back the leadership that they ceded to the wacko right in 2010 and, while it remains to be seen whether the GOP’s congressional leadership can remember how to govern, one thing that seems fairly clear is that they won’t be eager to have the lunatic fringe do it for them.

Arching over the whole tangled mess, there’s the so-far-pathetic return on Jindal’s presidential yearnings. Louisiana taxpayers thought they were hiring a governor. All that rushing out of state to curry favor with conservative donors and ideologues has helped push Jindal’s in-state approval rating steadily southward. And for what? A recent Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll put Jindal at 1 percent in Iowa, an unlucky 13th place. And his hoofing around New Hampshire on behalf of a Republican gubernatorial aspirant came to nothing in the mid-terms; the incumbent Democrat was re-elected.

The issues are all linked, of course, but let’s keep the focus on Common Core. It was once a key factor in Jindal’s campaign to position himself as a champion of school reform in a state notorious for terrible public schools. Now even the strong team he hand-picked to make it happen has turned against him.

The Common Core is controversial, no doubt about it. Thinking men and women can debate the  benchmarks recommended by the program. They can argue over the different curriculums for sale by private companies that have seen opportunity in the nationwide shift toward more rigorous instruction. Or, as the Common Core freely encourages, Louisiana can work up its own curriculum, one attuned to the state’s distinctive culture and its slowly improving record of scholastic underperformance.

But reasoned debate is not in fashion among opponents of Common Core. Instead it has seemed easier to lie about the Common Core, to hint or insist — as Vitter and Jindal now do — that it’s a curriculum dictated from Washington and forced upon the states. And of course, when that lie is exposed, which is easy to do, foes resort to the tried and true: name calling. Yes, a “satanic” president and his education secretary see merit in the Common Core. Let’s call it Obamacore

That’s the constituency Jindal and now Vitter are romancing, and it’s a particularly duplicitous  maneuver. No one knows better than Jindal that it was the nation’s governors who devised and backed Common Core, not the federal government. Jindal was one of its earliest and most vocal cheerleaders. Moreover, it’s not a curriculum; it’s a set of standards — benchmarks — that states can meet any way they see fit.

For a more seemly and intelligent approach to leadership on a hot-button issue, Jindal and Vitter might look to Marc Morial of the National Urban League — not that they ever would.

Former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial, now head of the National Urban League, has held steady in support of the Common Core. Credit: National Urban League

No, the top job at the Urban League isn’t an elective office, but anyone who thinks it isn’t highly political isn’t paying attention — and doesn’t know Morial, who, before he was mayor of New Orleans for two terms, was a state senator with notably acute political instincts.

Ensuring a decent education for all kids has been called the civil rights issue of our time. But plenty of black leaders have shied away from the Common Core, condemned it outright or praised it faintly. Not Morial. The National Urban League stands foursquare with other civil rights groups in favor of more rigorous schools for all American kids, hedging its bet only to insist that how the Common Core gets implemented is critically important and that the implementation had damn well better be equitable.

This isn’t to say Morial came effortlessly to his position. The National Urban League is tuned in to anxiety about Common Core among public school teachers, a bulwark of black political strength and middle-class black employment.

I caught up with Morial during his recent visit to the city he once ran. The weekend included a meeting of the Xavier University board, of which Morial’s a member, and the start of a search to find a successor to retiring Xavier president Norman Francis, another strong proponent of Common Core.

“You can’t have a 21st-century education system if every little red school house has its own standards,” Morial told me.

But standards aren’t the problem that worry good teachers, Morial has found. Their worry and Morial’s is implementation — the best way to meet those standards. The curriculum, whether purchased or developed by the state, has to be solid, teachers properly trained and the assessment tool — the test — has to be carefully considered.

With unaccustomed foresight, Louisiana got the test piece in place years ago. That was to give public educators time to practice with it and adjust curricula ahead of the test going live in 2016 as the measure by which school and teacher performance will be judged.

This summer, Jindal’s frantic hand-waving toward the Tea Party — his willingness to do most anything to establish himself as an anti-Common Core hardliner — led him to try aborting the contract with the testing company, a reckless 11th-hour move that the courts determined to be illegal and that John White, Jindal’s state Superintendent of Education, warned would undermine the state’s 20-year struggle to start holding its public schools accountable for what they’re supposed to do: educate kids.

Jindal was violating contract law by refusing to allow the Department of Education to pay for the tests it had ordered. He was also in violation of the state Constitution, which leaves such matters to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

In a burst of political spite that savors of Russian politics far more than the Common Core ever will, Jindal’s team responded to an imminent courtroom humiliation by slandering former allies, insinuating White was corrupt and threatening a bogus ethics probe into his effort to keep education reform on track in Louisiana.

Gov. Jindal was among the Common Core’s strongest backers — until he wasn’t.

Another Jindal gambit was, absurdly, to temporarily ice Louisiana’s application for a $15 million federal grant to advance pre-K opportunities. Why? It might be part of the Common Core agenda, Jindal insisted, before backing down. It brings to mind an anti-federalist gesture far costlier to Louisiana schools: Jindal’s dithering over an $80 million grant that would have brought broadband internet access to schools in even the most rural parts of Louisiana.

Politics is full of surprises, but based on the Iowa standings and subsequent polls, Jindal’s chances of becoming president of the United States might not look a whole lot better than yours or mine. That may be why national pundits are now assuming his more realistic goal is to lower his sights and see if someone will pick him for vice president. Or maybe throw him a cabinet post.

It’s not hard to understand why Jindal and his backers found the big prize tantalizing when his was still a fresh face. Here was a bright and precocious young man eager to leapfrog the U.S. Senate and hurl himself at the White House. And better yet, he was a prospective candidate “of color” at a time when the Republican Party is casting about for ways to broaden its reach.

Jindal’s game plan seemed obvious: tack to the right and pick up Tea Party support in the primaries, while signalling to the Republican elite that, of course, he would pivot and move back toward the center if he actually got the nomination.

But something funny happened on the road to Iowa: Jindal got outflanked on his right by two candidates with appeal to constituencies far more important to presidential politics than Americans who trace their heritage to India, as the Jindals do.

Senators Marco Rubio (with double Jindal’s support in the Iowa poll) and Ted Cruz (with seven times the support) not only carry Hispanic surnames, they are from states — Florida and Texas, respectively — that pack a whole lot more punch in the Electoral College than does Louisiana, with our paltry eight votes.

Hence, the absolute tizzy to which Jindal has reduced himself in an effort to reassure the Tea Party that he should be their guy, not Ted or Marco.

To Morial it’s simply “reprehensible” that Jindal is putting his presidential ambitions ahead of Louisiana’s kids, indeed the state itself.

“You can’t be about jobs and economic development if you’re not about human capital development,” Morial said, noting the huge benefits accruing to states like the Carolinas, that have chosen to invest heavily in education. “It’s a no-brainer.”

The sad thing is how close Jindal came to actually qualifying as an education governor. His early enthusiasm for Common Core was persuasive because it was in stride with other aspects of his agenda — one that Louisiana’s business leadership generally applauded: charter schools, vouchers, teacher accountability, beefed-up pre-K, high-stakes testing.

Support for the Common Core aligned smoothly with the Republican conviction that the nation’s schools are substandard, that teacher accountability is a key to the problem, and that more rigor might be good medicine. A less savory calculation: It was a way to stick it to the unions and to school boards, which traditionally have leaned Democratic.

In furtherance of these goals, Jindal built or backed a genuinely impressive education leadership: Chas Roemer, the BESE president, White as state superintendent, Conrad Appel as chair of the Senate* education committee. They’ve all turned against him as the governor thrashes about trying to distance himself from Common Core. But their defection can’t come as much of a surprise.

The reason Jindal backed these leaders in the first place was precisely because he knew they would be relentless in pursuit of the goal he once shared: stronger schools for Louisiana kids. They’ll continue that fight as Jindal, humiliated in court, makes a last-ditch effort to get the Legislature to bloody the Common Core during next spring’s session.

The irony is that, without standardized academic benchmarks and a thoughtfully considered testing protocol, Jindal strips Louisiana of a means to measure school performance, hold teachers and administrators accountable for their performance and reorganize failing schools — the ABC’s of a conservative school-reform agenda. Very simply, he is undermining the entire edifice he started to build as an “education governor.”

And what then will he have to show for himself?

Jindal’s a cut-and-run kind of politician. That became clear during the 2013 legislative session when he played to the grandstands with his bid to eliminate the state income tax but failed to calculate how regressive it would be to jack sales taxes even higher. The Fiscal Hawks — the state’s real conservatives — saw smoke and mirrors, called his bluff and Jindal folded on the day the session opened, abandoning even those parts of a long-overdue tax reform package that made sense and might have eased the ruinous state deficit we face as the Jindal years wind down.

However far he gets down the campaign trail in the coming political season, Jindal is sure to be dogged by a persistent question: Why, in his zeal to become president, did he see fit to shoot himself in the foot on school reform and then open fire on the entire team he had picked to help him upgrade Louisiana’s low-ranking system?

Vitter will have less to answer for. He has not postured as a politician much interested in education — a good thing given his equally unsteady hand on the Common Core issue.

*Correction: An earlier edition of this column misstated the legislative chamber in which Appel serves. 

Jed Horne

Opinion Editor Jed Horne is a veteran journalist who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize as part of the Times-Picayune team that covered Katrina and the recovery. He is the author of