From: The New York Times
Run Mitch, Run
By DAVID BROOKS
On Feb. 11, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana met with a group of college students. According to The Yale Daily News, he told them that there is an “excellent chance” he will not run for president. Then he mounted the podium at the Conservative Political Action Conference and delivered one of the best Republican speeches in recent decades.
This is the G.O.P. quandary. The man who would be the party’s strongest candidate for the presidency is seriously thinking about not running. The country could use a serious, competent manager, which Governor Daniels has been, and still he’s thinking about not running. The historic moment calls for someone who can restrain debt while still helping government efficiently perform its duties. Daniels has spent his whole career preparing for this kind of moment, and still he’s thinking about not running.
The country also needs a substantive debate about the role of government. That’s exactly what an Obama-Daniels contest would provide. Yet because Daniels is a normal person who doesn’t have an insatiable desire for higher office, he’s thinking about not running.
Daniels’s Conservative Political Action Conference speech had a serious and weighty tone. He spoke for those who believe the country’s runaway debt is the central moral challenge of our time. Yet within government’s proper sphere of action, he said Republicans have to be the “initiators of new ideas.” He spoke of the program he started that provides health insurance for low-income residents, and the education program that will give scholarships to students in failing schools so they can choose another.
“Our first thought,” he said, “is always for those on life’s first rung, and how we might increase their chances of climbing.”
He also spoke of expanding the party’s reach. In a passage that rankled some in the audience and beyond, he argued that “purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers.” Republicans, he continued, “will need people who never tune in to Rush or Glenn or Laura or Sean.” He spoke as a practical Midwesterner, appealing to hard-core conservatives and the not so hard-core.
Daniels’s speeches are backed up by his record. Since 2004, the 49 other states in the nation increased their debt levels by an average of 40 percent. Indiana has paid down its debt by 40 percent. Indiana received its first Triple-A bond rating in 2008, and now it is one of only nine states to have the highest rating from all three rating agencies.
At the same time, the business climate has improved significantly. Infrastructure spending is at record levels. The state has added jobs at twice the national average. For the first time in four decades, more people are moving in than moving out.
Daniels is famously a font of metrics, statistics and management stories. During his term, wait times at the Indiana motor vehicles bureau dropped from 40 minutes to under 10 minutes while customer satisfaction levels skyrocketed. Parents in Indiana will now receive report cards that give them a measure of how well their schools are doing.
Daniels appointed a bipartisan commission to reform the criminal justice system to save money and make sure incarceration rates actually promote public safety. Another bipartisan commission came up with 27 ideas to modernize local government.
In manner, Daniels is not classically presidential. Some say he is short (though others do not regard 5 feet 7 inches as freakishly diminutive). He does not dominate every room he enters. But he is not without political skills, in an offbeat sort of way. If you have some time, Google “Mitch TV” and you can watch a few episodes of the reality show his campaign produced during his gubernatorial races.
You will see him sidling up to Hoosiers in breakfast places and parking lots, unassumingly, more or less as an equal, talking mostly about whatever caloric monstrosity happens to be on offer (it’s Indiana). He’s personable and charming, but occasionally a tough message will slip out.
The best profile of Daniels was written by Andrew Ferguson of The Weekly Standard. In one scene, Daniels is talking to a man who is separated from his family and trying to send them financial support. “Well that’s good,” Daniels says, “but what they really need is you.”
The man drops his head and swings it back and forth: “I know this, governor. I know this.”
Daniels has occasionally leveled that toughness on his fellow conservatives. He told Ferguson that Republicans should declare a truce on social issues until the debt crisis is taken care of. A few activists are still upset.
But Daniels is keeping his paramount focus on debt and responsibility. He couldn’t match Obama in grace and elegance, but he could on substance. They could have a great and clarifying debate: What exactly are the paramount problems facing the country? What is government’s role in solving them?
I hope Daniels gives us a chance to be part of that.