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Can Skinflint Mitch Daniels Win the Presidency?
The Indiana governor would bring long-range planning to the White House.


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Michael Barone

It’s an ornate office in Indiana’s beautifully maintained mid-19th-century capitol, but the 49th governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, is not dressed to match the setting. He’s just returned from spending the night in Princeton, Ind., staying at a constituent’s house — as he often does around the state — and he’s dressed in a work shirt and jeans.

I’ve known Daniels since he was a staffer for Sen. Richard Lugar in the 1980s, and for years he struck me as one of the least likely candidates for public office. He’s got strong, mostly conservative convictions; he doesn’t suffer fools (and elected politicians) gladly; he doesn’t care if others don’t like him. All those characteristics were on display when he ran the Office of Management and Budget for George W. Bush between January 2001 and June 2003.

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But when he returned to Indiana from Washington, he started his campaign for governor, and he was elected with 53 percent of the vote in 2004. After four sometimes controversial years as governor — he sold off the North Indiana Toll Road and persuaded the legislature to smooth out the state’s time-zone boundaries — he was reelected by 58 percent to 40 percent in 2008, even as Barack Obama was carrying the state.

As much as any American politician of his generation, he’s proved that cutting spending and gaining a reputation as a skinflint is good politics.

Now Daniels is being mentioned as a presidential candidate, and he doesn’t deny that he’s thinking about it. He’s been holding dinners with national policy experts in Indianapolis, much as George W. Bush did in Austin, Texas, a dozen years ago.

And he says that, if he runs, he’ll be a different kind of candidate. As for “the federal fiscal picture — and why don’t we have the philosophic debate tomorrow — as for today, can we agree that the arithmetic doesn’t work? We’re going to have higher and higher levels of debt.”

He goes on. “This is a survival-level issue for the country. We won’t be a leader without major change in the federal fiscal picture. We’re going to have to do fundamental things you say are impossible.”

He believes that “Democrats are better positioned to do this, but they’re not going to lead. This will probably be a Republican responsibility.” To do what exactly?

To propose “fundamental changes in entitlements and in the size and scope of the federal government.” Because “the machine is going TILT.”

He thinks voters may be ready to support such changes because they’ve had searing experiences with debt, and their lives are changing. Younger people may be ready to accept lower Social Security benefits for high earners because they’ve seen that some companies’ new hires aren’t getting the pensions and benefits their elders got. “There’s nothing radical about this. It’s already happened all over the place.”

He’s also got some more short-term proposals — a payroll-tax holiday to stimulate the economy, reviving the presidential power of impoundment (that is, not spending money Congress has appropriated), and a moratorium on federal regulations.



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