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The Myth of Moderate Mitch

Why do some liberals think Governor Daniels is the most reasonable Republican who might run in 2012?

During his tenure in office, Mitch Daniels, the Republican governor of Indiana, has enacted a set of policies that would make any conservative proud. Elected with the help of donations from the Koch brothers, he signed bills that abolished the right of teachers to bargain for anything other than wages and wage-related benefits and initiated the largest private-school voucher program in the country. He’s said he will sign a bill that will end Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood in his state and ban all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. For good measure, he’s also privatized a state highway. Before Daniels ran for governor, he held an important fiscal post in George W. Bush’s White House, and now, he supports Paul Ryan’s plan to cut taxes for the rich while starving Medicare. What’s more, before getting into politics, he was president of Eli Lilly, one of the largest drug companies in the world. So far, the governor has been silent about the fact that, under his watch, Lilly had to pay out almost $3 billion in fines and damages for illegally marketing two of its best-selling products.

Given his conservative bona fides, why are some prominent liberal journalists rooting for Daniels to run for president? After schmoozing with him recently at an exclusive Upper East Side gathering of premier pundits, Hendrik Hertzberg gushed, “He doesn’t throw off the crackles of craziness. … I found his effect reassuring. To all appearances, his temperament is undoctrinaire even if some of his economic views aren’t. When it comes to red meat he seems to be a vegetarian.” According to Hertzberg, the The New Yorker’s unofficial editorial writer, the rest of the “leftish contingent” in attendance—which included Joshua Marshall of TPM and Michael Kinsley of Politico—agreed that the diminutive, blue-eyed governor would “be better than” any of the other Republicans who are running to stop Obama from winning a second term.

Perhaps Hertzberg and his ideological compatriots liked Daniels because they think the hard right detests him. After all, at a widely covered speech in February, the governor hinted he would not campaign on social issues and made the sensible comment, “We still need people who never tune in to Rush or Glenn or Laura or Sean.” This incensed a bevy of unhappy conservative bloggers, some of whom even compared him to John McCain. But savvier and more influential voices on the right know better than to think Daniels would run as a moderate Republican.

Last year, Andrew Ferguson of The Weekly Standard devoted over 8,000 words to touting Daniels as a model office-holder whose goal is “cutting government, high and low.”This March, Dick Armey, the former House Majority Leader who is one of the few acknowledged leaders of the Tea Party movement, told CNN, “Mitch is exactly the kind of candidate that our folks across the country are looking for. … He really fits the bill more than he realizes.” In early May, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, introduced Daniels as someone who “put his politics where his mouth is for the benefit of Indiana and in the future perhaps for the benefit of America.” These men are not fools.

Neither is Rick Hertzberg, but, in writing about Daniels, he was certainly being foolish. Since Ronald Reagan won the presidency, no Republican who hopes to do the same can risk getting out of step with the well-organized conservative ideologues who set the party’s agenda, get out the vote, and finance its campaigns. Consider what happened to John McCain. Not so long ago, he was turning a lot of progressive heads as well. In 2002, Elizabeth Drew wrote a book touting him as a “civic-minded” idealist who wanted to inspire young Americans to revive “the workability of the democratic idea.” Arthur Schlesinger contributed a glowing blurb. Six years later, however, the celebrated maverick chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, embraced a Muslim-bashing preacher, and accused Barack Obama of running a “radical education foundation” with Bill Ayers. At least McCain had first co-sponsored a moderate legislative reform of campaign spending, and with a certified liberal Democrat no less. For Daniels, on the other hand, bipartisanship seems to consist of seducing journalists at what Hertzberg describes as a “Gilded Age” mansion.

Of course, Daniels may decide not to become a candidate. He is evidently worried about having to explain why he divorced and then remarried the same wife, and his lack of experience in foreign affairs may put him at a disadvantage against the Obama who vanquished Osama. When Daniels was asked recently if he were inclined to run, he responded with admirable common sense, “Would I like to? No. What sane person would like to?”

But, if he does go lunatic, the policies Daniels espouses will be no better than those of his GOP rivals. In order to win the nomination, all in the running will have to take stands even to the right of Reagan, who as president was heedless of deficits and left Medicaid and Medicare alone. A good salesman like Daniels may be able to make the conservative creed sound “reassuring.” But, in reality, he will have no desire to alter the harmful doctrines of the faith.

Michael Kazin is the author of the forthcoming book American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University.

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