June 8, 2010


Ride Along with Mitch: Can the astonishing popularity of Indiana’s penny-pinching governor carry him to the White House in 2012? (Andrew Ferguson, June 14, 2010, Weekly Standard)

The Daniels family finally moved back to Indianapolis in 1987. He practiced law half-heartedly and became executive vice president and COO of the Hudson Institute, a think tank that had landed in Indianapolis after a series of financial setbacks. Daniels is widely credited with putting the institution back on its feet. “You do what a businessman does,” he told me when I asked about taking over Hudson. “You cut costs. You look for underperforming assets. You watch your spending. You find new markets for your services. We had a budget of $14 million. Even though it was nonprofit it was still like a small business. We had a bottom line.”

He also enjoyed the company he kept. “There were a lot of really smart, really interesting, really flaky people,” he said. Hudson placed him in the thick of the conservative intellectual counterculture of the 1980s. He dabbled in highbrow activism, joining the board of the human-rights group Freedom House and founding a pro-immigration group with the great economist Julian Simon. He still seeds his conversation with references to George Gilder, Thomas Sowell, Michael Novak, and, especially, Charles Murray, whose work, he says, demonstrated that big government liberalism—or statism, to use Daniels’s preferred term​—does more harm than good to the very people it was designed to help.

And it does this by smothering free enterprise, which works as the real engine of human innovation and betterment. “I’m enough of a Whig to know that government can create the conditions in which free markets can flourish,” he says. “Beyond that I get skeptical.” Daniels valorizes businesspeople, and he proved, by all accounts, to be an excellent businessman himself. Lilly hired him away from Hudson in 1990 to head its corporate affairs division. He rose rapidly through the corporate ranks—and unexpectedly, since Lilly was a notoriously inbred company, opening its top jobs only to people who had spent their whole careers there. He designed the company’s counterattacks on the Church of Scientology, which had launched a massive PR campaign against Prozac, a Lilly drug, in an effort to persuade Americans to drop their attachment to antidepressants and begin worshipping deceased science fiction writers. The campaign was so successful that the Lilly board of directors named Daniels head of the company’s North American operations, a multibillion-dollar business with more than 30,000 employees.

In 2000, George W. Bush, at Hubbard’s suggestion, named Daniels director of the Office of Management and Budget. “I never thought I’d go back to Washington,” he said, “but this was the one job I’d go back for. It’s the best job in government. Everything comes together right there.” Daniels left Lilly and liquidated all his stock options and other securities, for a payoff well over $20 million.

Bush called him the Blade, at least in public, and the first budget Daniels submitted was indeed restrained, in comparison with the Bush budgets that followed. With his excellent political sense Daniels fastened on a couple of gimmicks to illustrate his tight-fistedness. He tried to have his office voicemail system altered to play “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” when callers were on hold, but had to settle for piping the song into the Government Printing Office location when congressional staff showed up to pick up their copy of the budget. At a Capitol Hill hearing, out of patience, he said he’d discovered the motto of Congress: “Don’t just stand there, spend something.”

Then came 9/11 and Iraq. In some quarters, Daniels is notorious for publicly declaring that the war in Iraq would cost no more than $60 billion, as a way (goes the theory) of solidifying political support. It’s a particularly egregious charge, reeking of toadyism. It won’t die, and it clearly rankles him.

“The facts are otherwise,” he told me, exasperated, when I mentioned it. “I thought we’d dispensed with this, but I guess not. I think we got it straightened out on Wikipedia at least. I got so sick of it I put together a whole file of stuff that lays out the facts.” Among the material is a background briefing Daniels gave reporters in April 2002, outlining Bush’s request for $74 billion to fight the war. “I said to the Pentagon, give us your assumptions. They talked about a six-month conflict, and we made our estimate on the basis of that.”

The briefing transcript bears this out. “This [budget request] will, to the best of our ability to estimate this, cover all costs from now to the end of the fiscal year,” Daniels said then. “Six months contemplates a conflict, a period of stabilization in Iraq, and the phased withdrawal of a large number of troops.”

He says now, “If someone had come to us and said, What will it cost to invade Iraq, beat the Iraqi Army and stay in Iraq for eight more years, we would have given a different answer. But that wasn’t the question.”

The invasion was over, and the war was just beginning, when Daniels went back to Indiana. For more than a year he’d been implored by Hubbard and others to challenge the sitting governor, though it’s clear he didn’t need a whole lot of imploring. To the press he was coy, saying in mid-2002 that he was focused exclusively on his present job, fulfilling his commitment to the president, and was entertaining no thoughts of running for governor. A year later he was in the RV, campaigning.

So is he going to run for president? I asked him at the end of a long dinner in a pleasant, not-too-expensive restaurant on the north side of Indianapolis, and he did what he’s been doing for a year whenever interviewers ask the inevitable question—pursed lips, followed by a half-smile, a slight shake of the head, and the recitation of a long string of phrases nearly identical to the ones he used eight years ago when he denied he was running for governor. He has no intention to run, but he’s leaving the door open, but right now he’s focusing on the commitment he made to the people of his state, but if no one else steps forward it’s something he might be forced to consider, but he doesn’t expect that to happen, but .  .  .

There are smart people in Indiana who think he won’t run​—that his demurrals are a ploy to better position himself as governor. “He can’t run [for governor] again, but you notice nobody here considers him a lame duck,” said John Ketzenberger, a veteran statehouse reporter. “He’s still a player in the minds of people here because he’s seen as a player on the national scene. He knows how to leverage that.”

At dinner Daniels admits as much. “Newt [Gingrich] told me, look, quit saying you’re not going to do this. If you don’t run, you don’t run. But say you’re leaving the door open, and the national press will pay a lot more attention to your viewpoint.”

In the past year he’s raised money and recruited candidates for this fall’s state races. Republicans have a good chance of winning both houses of the state legislature, giving the governor a free hand in the next legislative session when he resubmits a raft of reform ideas rejected by the Indiana house’s Democratic majority. The session begins in January and runs through April. One last, truncated legislative session, in 2012, will require much less of the governor’s attention. After next April, in other words, he’ll still be governor, but he’ll have more time on his hands.

Also over the last year, he’s been attending a series of small lunches and dinners arranged by consultants and fundraisers from Indiana and beyond, and his recent visits to Washington have been packed with TV appearances, press breakfasts, closed-door kibitzing, and fundraisers for his state political action committee. After 30 years of national political activity, he doesn’t need any introductions.

But he has yet to set foot in New Hampshire or Iowa, as other potential nominees have. So far his only scheduled campaign appearance out of state is in Ohio, at a rally for John Kasich, the Republican candidate for governor.

“I really don’t want to run,” he said again. “It’s very important this time around that the party get it right. It’s not going to be enough to be the un-Obama. We need to focus more on the What of the campaign than the Who.” When he describes the What, though, it sounds tailored for a particular Who.

“What we’ve seen in the past year, what I call shock-and-awe statism, has put the American experiment at risk,” he said. “For the first time in my life, the country faces survival-level issues.”

Those would be, along with “terrorism in a WMD world,” the national debt and the recurring federal deficits.

“There are things that I would advance as a candidate that the playbook says are folly—suicidal,” he said. “We’d have to fundamentally change all the welfare and entitlement programs. What Bush tried to do [in proposing private accounts for Social Security] was mild compared to what needs to be done. You have to have a completely new compact for people under a certain age, for Medicare and Social Security. You’re gonna have to dramatically cut spending across the whole government, including, by the way, national defense. When Bush arrived, we were spending $300 billion on national defense, and he thought that was plenty. Now it’s, what, $800 billion?”

Beyond the debt and the deficit, in Daniels’s telling, all other issues fade to comparative insignificance. He’s an agnostic on the science of global warming but says his views don’t matter. “I don’t know if the CO2 zealots are right,” he said. “But I don’t care, because we can’t afford to do what they want to do. Unless you want to go broke, in which case the world isn’t going to be any greener. Poor nations are never green.”

And then, he 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.

But about that truce .  .  .

“He might be one guy who could get away with it,” said Curt Smith, head of the Indiana Family Institute, who’s known Daniels since the 1980s. “He has a deep faith, he’s totally pro-life, and he walks the talk. And in an acute situation, like the one we’re in now with the debt, he might get away with a truce for a year or two. But to be successful in office he’s going to have to show those folks he shares their vision.”

In 2008, Smith supported an amendment to the state constitution to codify marriage between a man and a woman. He asked for the governor’s support.

“I wish he’d been more vocal about it, but that’s not his way,” Smith said. “What he told me, and told the public, was ‘As a citizen I will go into the voting booth and vote for it eagerly. As governor, I don’t have a role in this. The legislature and the people amend the constitution.’   ”

A couple of his friends say the one thing that will keep Daniels from a presidential campaign is deference to his family.

...even his physical appearance--pale, bald, dwarf--makes him a stark contrast to the UR.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 8, 2010 5:46 PM
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