If Mitch Daniels ends up with a national career, it will be because he's the anti-Palin: All substance and, aside from his motorcycle habit, no flash.
The Indiana governor is on many Republican short lists for 2012, but he hasn't gotten there in quite the same way as other governors and ex-governors. He hasn't quit, published a book or signed a media contract, like former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska. Nor has he shifted on the political spectrum from mild-mannered moderate to sharp-edged conservative, as have former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and and Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, the better to rally activists such as those at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference.
No, he's more like other Republican governors on my personal list of the plausible and even admirable, but probably doomed. There's former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, burdened
with his family name. There's former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who raised some taxes and released too many prisoners
. There's Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, who recently joked that "If you see me losing 40 pounds, that means I'm either running or have cancer." He used to be one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, not the ideal resume
in these times. And now there's Daniels, a former federal budget director under George W. Bush, who keeps his rhetorical diet free of red meat.
CPAC, a traditional showcase for conservatives on the rise, drew the John Birch Society as a sponsor this year and libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas won the CPAC straw poll. Daniels said he had "respectfully declined" an invitation to speak -- the latest of several -- even though he was going to be in Washington anyway for an overlapping National Governors Association meeting. "I don't do that sort of thing. I stay in my lane," he said. Not that he avoids all venues frequented by ambitious politicians. He made the remark to several dozen national political reporters Tuesday at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.
In this ruminative setting, the small, trim, buttoned-down governor tried to explain how he feels about anti-tax, anti-spending Tea Party protests, CPAC and rabble-rousing in general. There are appropriate times for "rowdyism and barbs cast at the other side," he said. On the other hand, "the events of the last year have, I think, had their moments of excess." On the third hand, it's healthy that "so many citizens have become interested and a little better informed" about fiscal issues. And on the fourth hand, "it's clearly not sufficient -- raising hell never is."
Daniels said it is time to "move on from that awakening to an honest discussion" about what we can afford as a nation, and how to pay for it. He also said Republicans need to campaign to govern, not just to win. They need a credible program, he said, and "a tone that's friendly and inviting and that gives you some chance of unifying people around some action. If it has to be the second or third or fourth best action, all right."
Not exactly a partisan call to arms, and Daniels knows it. He calls himself "the longest of long shots," given the problems he'd have selling himself to the hard-line conservatives who vote in primaries.
Nobody would mistake Daniels for a liberal. He defends Bush's tax cuts as "absolutely right" for the economy and says, "It would be a big mistake to let them expire." At home, he has instituted merit pay for state employees and leased the Indiana Toll Road to a private company. He's annoyed that Sen. Evan Bayh made his retirement announcement too late for primaries, allowing Democratic officials to hand-pick candidates for senator and whatever offices open up down the ballot as they pluck people to run for higher office. It is, Daniels said, "a kingmaker's delight."
But on the less orthodox side of the ledger, Daniels has told fellow Indiana Republicans that he will not sign an overtly partisan redistricting plan from either party. He has expanded health coverage and all-day kindergarten and raised a tax or two since taking office in 2005. His administration last year fired IBM and took back control of the state's welfare program, an acknowledgment that privatization -- a conservative shibboleth -- was failing.
While other Republicans, such as Pawlenty, are under attack for calling the federal stimulus package useless and wasteful, even as they plead for the money and brag about creating jobs with it, Daniels is more nuanced. Some stimulus was fine with him, he said, but "the way they did it turned out to be mediocre."
While other Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have made a career of attacking earmarks -- the sometimes undeserving one-point projects lawmakers tuck into big bills without a review process -- Daniels dismisses their budgetary importance. "You can erase every earmark tomorrow and we all know that doesn't fix anything. It ought to be done. It's a little start. It's the right thing to do. But that's a BB. And we have to shoot high-caliber solutions at these problems," Daniels said.
While other Republicans opposed a bipartisan deficit-reduction commission because they feared it would recommend tax increases as well as spending cuts, Daniels says the commission is "worth a try" and doesn't rule out new taxes. "The answer need not and should not include tax increases. That's an intellectually responsible argument," he said. "But the only thing that I think can be ruled out is continuing in our present barrel right over Niagara Falls."
Daniels is passionate about issues ranging from the deficit and terrorism to the infrastructure and making government work. Yet instead of planning a White House bid himself, he is trying to persuade others to run. "I don't plan to do it. I don't expect to do it. I really don't want to do it," he said. Asked why, he answered with another question: "Can't you name 100 reasons that no sane person would do this?" Topping his list was "the savagery of our politics."
A presidential race would be much different from the politics Daniels has practiced in Indiana. Despite a slip or two, he said, he has followed "a malice toward none" approach. He said he has never run a negative ad or 'hired mercenaries" to run a campaign. He tries, he said, to abide by what he often heard Ronald Reagan say when he was a senior aide in the Reagan White House: "Remember, we have no enemies, only opponents."
Talk of reason, compromise, civility and responsibility by an even-tempered, deliberative politician who is steeped in policy? Does Daniels remind you of anyone? He reminds me of President Obama. If Republicans want to make a real go of 2012, they ought to draft Daniels.