The "Likeable Wonk"

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on August 20, 2010

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A sketch of Mitch Daniels, who I really hope will run for President in 2012:

In 2003 Mr Daniels announced that he would run for governor. Democrats knew he was intelligent. To their horror, he turned out to be likeable too. Sarah Palin is strident and Mitt Romney disconcertingly perfect. Mr Daniels is at ease, an unusual politician who does not seem like one. He criss-crossed the state in an RV decorated with his slogan, “My Man Mitch”, and soon covered with signatures. He ate pork and watched baseball in the shadow of Gary’s steel mills. He stayed in private homes, first to save money on hotels, then because he liked it and his hosts seemed to as well. (He continues this even now, sleeping in children’s rooms, cramped Latino households and even more crowded Amish ones, often riding between them on his beloved Harley.) In November 2004 he won, by 53% to 45%.

Mr Daniels oozed with ideas. He introduced merit pay for public workers and performance metrics for state agencies. Indiana’s counties skittered illogically between two time zones, so he reset the state’s clocks. A toll road was losing money, so he oversaw a $3.85 billion lease to foreign investors. He was not dogmatic. In his first year he proposed a tax increase. He shrank the state workforce but increased the number of case workers for children. He passed a health plan that included private accounts for the poor.

Not everything went smoothly. The road lease and time change were, at first, enormously unpopular. He privatised the state’s welfare system, an unqualified disaster—eventually he cancelled the contract. But by the end of his first term he had transformed a $200m deficit into a $1.3 billion surplus and the state had earned its first AAA credit rating.

It helped that Indiana was faring better than its rusty neighbours. Manufacturing output grew by 20% between 1998 and 2008. Michigan’s slumped by 12% during the same time. The number of bioscience jobs, still small, grew 17.2% from 2001 to 2008. Mr Daniels tried to help, keeping taxes low and investing in infrastructure before it was hip. When the recession began, Indiana’s unemployment rate was lower than the national average.

By 2008 all this had culminated in a simple reality: Indiana liked its man Mitch. Barack Obama won the state, but Mr Daniels trounced his Democratic opponent, 58% to 40%. Some of this was luck. The opponent was lacklustre; the recession had yet to do its worst. But his victory was still notable. He won the young by 51% to 42%, and even picked up 20% of black and 37% of Hispanic voters.

The record may have warts in it, but what record doesn’t? And the warts are vastly outnumbered by the many good things that Governor Daniels has done during his time in office. I don’t know if Daniels will run for President–if I had to bet, I would say that he won’t–but the GOP could do worse than to have someone like him as a standard bearer.

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