My longstanding admiration for Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels is reinforced by W. James Antle’s article on his record, and possible candidacy for President in 2012. And Paul Bedard has information indicating that a run for the Presidency may well be in the cards. I can certainly think of worse developments as I cast about for a potential President worthy of the office, and with the smarts and ideas to help pull the country out of its current mess.
Why am I high on Daniels? Well, the easy answer is that when someone gets called “the smartest guy in the room,” and produces the merchandise to back up the appellation (see also this), when someone is judged to be as likable as he is wonky (and with good reason), and when that someone is a potential Presidential candidate who shares my political philosophy, I tend to take notice.
Daniels’s smarts and his record are responsible for having brought him a lot of favorable publicity, and approving chatter when the possibility of a run for the Presidency is discussed. But his physical appearance and oratorical skills, and certain of his stated positions have caused various pundits to express doubts. Of course, Daniels isn’t a perfect candidate for the Presidency–nobody is–but some of the most prominent stated reasons in opposition to his potential candidacy turn out to be less than persuasive.
Take, for example, some of the stated aesthetic objections to a possible “Daniels for President” campaign. In 2008, we elected an eloquent, attractive candidate who certainly is very smart, but who also was–and still is–quite inexperienced in the art of being a successful executive. In Daniels, we have a potential Presidential candidate who is either 5’7″, or 5’3″, depending on whom you ask, with a bad combover, and is not a great orator, but who would bring a wealth of executive experience to the Presidency. Daniels would be no match for Barack Obama in the movie star department, but as an Governor, he has brought about significantly more positive change, and garnered more bragging rights, than have most of his peers. Indeed, it’s not hard to believe that if President Obama were able to replicate on the national level in two years a reasonable amount of the success Mitch Daniels has been able to achieve in six years as Governor, the midterm elections might not have gone as badly as they did for the Democrats. In the aftermath of the elections, and the popular repudiation of much of the Obama Administration’s agenda, Newsweek has taken to wondering whether the Presidency is simply too big for one person. Possibly it is, but then again, it’s also possible that we just have the wrong person as President. For what it’s worth, thanks to Mitch Daniels, no one is wondering whether the job of Governor of Indiana is too big for one person, and while there certainly is a difference between being Governor of Indiana, and being President, the fact of the matter is that Daniels would be able to bring precisely the significant, quality executive experience to the Presidency that Barack Obama completely lacked prior to taking office. Daniels has completely mastered his job. Obama has yet to master his.
But despite Daniels’s substantive virtues, we have various pundits and members of the media obsessed with style when it comes to commenting on a potential Daniels candidacy. To be sure, the electorate certainly responds to stylistic and aesthetic issues when picking a President. But one wonders why there isn’t a significant effort on the part of the same punditry and media class to put forth the notion that with all of the problems and challenges facing America, the last thing we ought to be thinking about in choosing whom we vote for in 2012 is whether our preferred candidate looks like a movie star, or whether he/she weaves a hypnotic spell in the course of giving a speech. The economy remains lackluster, the fiscal picture looks tremendously bleak, unemployment remains within kissing distance of 10%, our education system is awful beyond imagining, we are still managing two wars, along with a general war on terror, and we are grappling with the security challenges posed by China–among a whole host of other things on our national plate. In light of all of this, why should anyone care what a preferred Presidential candidate looks like, or whether that Presidential candidate can deliver a stemwinder, so long as that preferred Presidential candidate actually has the smarts, and the background to meet the challenges facing the country, and be a great President in the process? Are we so unmindful of the problems that we have to solve as a country that we continue to pay attention to the superficial, while letting knotty policy questions languish?
The other major issue raised by objectors to a Daniels candidacy is raised by social conservatives, who object to the following passage in Andrew Ferguson’s profile of the Governor:
And then, [Daniels] says, the next president, whoever he is, “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We’re going to just have to agree to get along for a little while,” until the economic issues are resolved. Daniels is pro-life himself, and he gets high marks from conservative religious groups in his state. He serves as an elder at the Tabernacle Presbyterian Church, in inner-city Indianapolis, which he’s attended for 50 years. In 1998, with a few other couples from Tabernacle and a nearby Baptist congregation, he and his wife founded a “Christ-centered” school, The Oaks Academy, in a downtown neighborhood the local cops called “Dodge City.” It’s flourishing now with 315 mostly poor kids who pursue a classical education: Latin from third grade on, logic in middle school, rhetoric in eighth grade, an emphasis throughout on the treasures of Western Civilization. “It’s the most important thing I’ve ever been involved in,” he told me. His social-conservative credentials are solid.
The fact that Daniels is pro-life, is liked by conservative religious groups in his state, serves as an elder in his church, founded a “flourishing” religious school that provides an excellent education to the students it serves, and has “solid” social-conservative credentials has been lost in the outrage that has accompanied the “truce” comment. But as W. James Antle points out in his article, Daniels has clarified his statement to indicate that he “is offering a truce, but only if social liberals honor it too.” Additionally, while Daniels’s comment was certainly controversial, was it wrong? Social issues are certainly important and significant, but if the economy remains moribund, and our various foreign policy challenges are not met, no amount of emphasis on social issues will prevent the United States from becoming a third-rate power. Moreover, when we discuss “social issues,” shouldn’t our economic and fiscal situation be part and parcel of that discussion? After all, the ability to create jobs, the ability to maintain a thriving free market, and the ability to impart a better, debt-free life for future generations of Americans by facing up to our fiscal challenges, and competing effectively with other countries are issues with vast social and moral significance. No one underestimates the importance of other social issues like abortion, and the teaching of proper morals and ethics–certainly not Daniels, given his own strong background on those issues–but the fiscal and economic crises we face will become pressing within short order. Mitch Daniels believes that it is a pressing social and moral issue for the United States to not end up like Japan, with its lost decade, or Greece, with its fiscal disaster. When all is said and done, and when the nature of the fiscal and economic challenges facing the United States are fully and properly contemplated, it’s hard not to agree.
I am by no means uncritical of Mitch Daniels. While I support his call for a value-added tax (assuming that it is part of a comprehensive tax reform package that brings about substantial personal income tax cuts, and the elimination of the corporate income tax), I take issue with his call for an oil tariff, as it would likely be distortionary, and could severely impact consumer spending at a time when we need more consumer spending to help jump start the economy. And while I take Daniels’s point that we won’t be effective abroad until we get our fiscal and economic house in order at home, he still needs to clarify his foreign policy vision to address America’s challenges abroad.
Fortunately, Daniels has time to fine-tune his arguments if he wants to run in 2012. The question is whether we will be receptive to a public figure whose visage and height challenge what we think a politician ought to look like, whose oratorical style challenges what we think a politician ought to sound like, whose behavior challenges what we think a politician ought to act like, but whose ideas are refreshing, who is willing to speak hard truths to the American people, and who has the experience and accomplishments to deserve to be taken seriously if he puts himself forward for national office. No one is obliged to vote for Mitch Daniels, and if he runs, he will have to fight to earn every vote. But I would like to think that at a critical point in American history, we will be willing, as an electorate, to consider a potential Presidential candidate who will do right by the American people, even if he fails to do right by Central Casting.