Mitch Daniels is going to be president after all, but not of the United States. On Thursday, Purdue University officials announced that he will start there after finishing his term as governor of Indiana. Though it may strike some as an odd move for a one-time presidential prospect, sources close to Daniels told National Review Online that his decision to enter academia didn’t surprise them — and might not necessarily mean the end of his political career.
But Daniels is taking himself off the political stage in the wake of last year’s calls for him to run for president, and rumors of the possibility of his becoming Romney’s running mate. He’s the rare politician who forswears interest in higher office, and means it.
“You can never say ‘never’ about Mitch Daniels,” says Neil Pickett, who was a senior policy adviser for Daniels during his first term as governor. “I think it’s harder to imagine than if he had selected some other kind of choice, but I just would never say never,” though he says Daniels certainly means “not now.”
Daniels’s choice to move to Purdue seems natural to those close to him. Eric Holcomb, the Indiana Republican-party chairman, says the university sought him out for the job. And since Daniels had always said he wasn’t interested in running for anything besides governor, his choice to join the school wasn’t a huge surprise, Holcomb explains.
“[Daniels] has done more than his fair share” for the Republican cause, he says.
A source close to Daniels notes that his choice to bow out of politics instead of making himself available for a higher office — say, as Romney’s vice-presidential nominee or a potential member of his cabinet — isn’t because of any pessimism about Republican prospects in November. He just wasn’t interested. Instead, the reform-minded governor will focus on the task of improving the university.
“Purdue will be the test case” for some of Daniels’s reform ideas, the source tells NRO. “That’s my hunch, and I think that opportunity probably really excites him. He’s going to use Purdue as a forum to enact the same type of sweeping changes to higher ed” that he enacted in state government as Indiana’s chief executive.
Ryan Streeter echoed that sentiment. Streeter, currently a fellow at the Sagamore Institute, an Indiana think tank, worked in the Bush White House while Daniels ran the Office of Management and Budget.
“I think there’s a great opportunity to take a midwestern university that’s on the upswing, to make it world class, and that probably is something that appeals to him,” Streeter explains.
“Mitch Daniels never struck me as the kind of guy who maps out a career strategy the way others would normally think he would. I think he likes to take on big things and solve big problems,” he adds.
Several sources say Daniels’s wonkishness will translate well into academia, particularly running a large research university. But fans of the governor shouldn’t lose all hope of a possible return to national politics.
“Every signal that he’s put out right now is that he’s not pursuing any political office,” Streeter says. “Having said that, he’s someone who does respond to the call to serve and take on big problems when that call comes, and I guess if someday in the future, that had a political nature to it again, he’d probably consider it.”
He considered it this time and said “no” — almost certainly for Purdue’s gain.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.