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The Daniels Dilemma

The conservative establishment’s hopeless infatuation with Mitch Daniels.

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s surprise announcement that he is not, after all, running for president in 2012 is sparking an incipient sense of panic in the self-confident ranks of Republican insiders. Ol’ Haley was so their type: solidly conservative without getting too carried away with it, innately at home with money and those who made lots of it, and always ready to cut a shrewd deal. But now, for whatever reason, Haley’s out. And from the corridors of lobbying firms in DC and corporate headquarters in Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago and elsewhere, the discerning ear can detect a high-pitched wail of distress aimed at a calm, small man in Indianapolis: “Save us, Mitch Daniels!”

With Barbour out, the conservative establishment is likely to double down on its effort to draft Daniels, who is in many ways a more perfect embodiment of their ideal than Barbour himself. But even with the encouragement and the resources of the Republican elite at his back, Daniels is right to remain cautious. The very qualities that have made him so popular among Republicans in Washington seem unlikely to win him a great deal of support among the party faithful.

Daniels, who is currently serving his second term as governor of Indiana, is reportedly Barbour’s best friend in politics—if he were to run, he’d likely get the Mississippian’s formidable help in fundraising and organizing. But beyond that, Daniels is best suited to fill the psychological void currently besetting GOP insiders. By his resume alone, he fits the bill even better than his former Reagan White House boss Barbour: a long-time Senate staffer and then White House political operative, before going back to Indiana to run a nationally prominent conservative think tank, then make his bones as a corporate exec at a pharmaceutical giant. Daniels returned to Washington to serve as OMB director, and came home again to become a famously tight-fisted and politically popular two-term governor. He’s a known quantity who is attractive to the Very Serious People in the GOP—otherwise known as “economic conservatives” or “fiscal hawks”—who want their party to return the birthers and the bible thumpers to the back-room phone banks and get on with the serious work of shaping government to serve the tangible interests of people like themselves.

Moreover, Daniels embodies the fiscal conservative creed with an unusual intensity. In his rapturously received speech at this year’s CPAC conference, the most closely watched venue for potential Republican presidential candidates, he vividly compared the “Red Menace” of fiscal indiscipline to the twentieth-century communist threat—a clever metaphor, since anti-communism is universally remembered as the glue that kept together the various wings of the conservative movement during its decades-long rise. Last year Daniels made waves by telling The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson—who penned a lavish puff piece advertising its subject as exactly what the political doctor ordered—that the country needed a “truce” on divisive cultural issues until such time as the fiscal/economic crisis was resolved. This is exactly what Republican insiders tend to think; some, indeed, would like to make the “truce” permanent so as not to discomfit swing voters. 

Best of all, and in contrast to Barbour, Daniels does not exude the constant scent of big money. Though a firm ally of GOP plutocrats, Daniels nestles his fiscal conservatism in the traditions of thrifty Hoosier folk virtues. As the Ferguson profile demonstrated with its admiring tales of the governor roaring around Indiana on his Harley and dropping into truck stops and diners unannounced to pour coffee for startled citizens, Mitch Daniels can add a populist touch to the Club for Growth agenda. 

But just because conservatives in Washington love him doesn’t mean Daniels is likely to storm the field and charge to victory. In fact, Daniels has at least three glaring problems he would need to quickly solve in order to make a serious presidential bid.

The first is of his own making: The “truce” pledge, while music to the ears of many fiscal hawks, is perceived as a deadly insult by social conservatives, who are already angry about decades of being taken for granted by the party. These people matter a great deal during the Republican nominating process, particularly in Iowa, where an ongoing effort to overturn the state supreme court’s 2009 decision legalizing same-sex marriage is the single hottest topic for conservative activists. During early candidate events in Iowa, virtually everyone other than Barbour has taken a veiled shot or two at Daniels and his “truce” proposal. Unless he decides to campaign as an open opponent of the Christian Right’s agenda—a proposition that has never worked for any Republican candidate, as John McCain demonstrated in 2000—Daniels will have to spend a great deal of time kissing the posteriors of social conservative activists. And in Iowa, it will have to be done one posterior at a time. 

Second, Daniels’ fiscal-hawk bona fides come at the high price of excessive specificity in his support for radical changes in government that garner little or no public support. For instance, most of the 2012 presidential candidates have given the more incendiary provisions of Paul Ryan’s budget a wide berth. Mitt Romney, for example, told donors he wasn’t sure the country was ready for the kind entitlement changes Ryan was talking about, and others tersely indicated they’d be preparing their own budget plans. But Daniels, on the other hand, has gone out of his way to praise Ryan’s Medicare proposal as “exactly the right way to head.” In his CPAC address, this is what the Hoosier governor had to say about the New Deal legacy:

We know what the basic elements must be. An affectionate thank you to the major social welfare programs of the last century, but their sunsetting when those currently or soon to be enrolled have passed off the scene. 

No Democrat would have to make the case that Mitch Daniels wants to “end Medicare as we know it.” He makes the case himself, and it’s not clear that Republican primary voters—especially elderly ones that Republicans scared to the polls in 2010 on the premise that Obamacare would slash their beloved Medicare—will cheer that effort any more than swing voters.

Finally, for all his Washington fame, Mitch Daniels is just not very well known outside Indiana. A recent Gallup poll showed just one-third of Republicans nationally having any idea who he was. The truck stops of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have not been graced by his Harley, and if he decides to run, he’ll be spotting most of the field a pretty big head start. Unlike Barbour, he does not have a long-established national network of fundraising beneficiaries and donors; perhaps Haley will loan him his own, but it’s not the same thing. No pre-mobilized voter faction will naturally gravitate to him. And Daniels’ understated personal style—George Will once revealingly called it “the charisma of competence”—is an acquired taste that takes some getting used to. At a time when Republican caucus and primary participants seem inclined to favor candidates who get them lathered up, Hoosier modesty presented by a short, balding man in his early sixties may not go over that well.

Daniels is probably pondering these obstacles as he makes his decision. But in the meantime, he will continue to be serenaded by his fans in elite Republican circles with ever-increasing and passionate desire. He’d do well to remember that while they have money and influence, in the end they only get one vote each.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic. 

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