Politics & Policy

Our Man Mitch

The can-do conservative governor changes the world — with no fuss and no feathers.

Last Friday in New Haven, the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale hosted a conference on the 60th anniversary of the publication of Whittaker Chambers’s classic book, Witness. An invited audience of students, faculty, alumni, and friends of the program attended the event, and Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana delivered the keynote address. The text of the governor’s remarkable speech will be published this week, and the video version will appear on C-SPAN in the coming weeks. Neal B. Freeman — longtime National Review contributor and member of the Buckley Program’s board of directors — introduced Governor Daniels with the remarks below.

One of the objectives of the Buckley Program is to convey to students a sense of the political possibilities in American life. Some of those possibilities can be neglected on a campus where most of the students, the faculty, and the administration seem to shuffle along to the same old drummer. The eponymous Mr. Buckley, as some of you will remember and others of you will have heard, was not much of a shuffler. It was Bill Buckley, in fact, who showed Yale and then the nation just how large the possibilities could be. When asked what he proposed to do with his young and financially malnourished magazine, Bill Buckley — no Burkean, he — would flash that lupine grin and say with theatrically false immodesty, “We propose to change the world.”

Adults would laugh indulgently. Only young people seemed to understand that he meant exactly what he had said. Bill’s boast was a kind of dog whistle, inaudible to many, a clarion call to some.

Our speaker tonight has sensed, engaged, and realized many of the possibilities of political life. As a student at Princeton, he observed the gathering forces of reform. As a senatorial aide on Capitol Hill, he learned the mechanics of policy development. As political director in the Reagan White House, he began to shape the course of national affairs. He then became a senior executive in the pharmaceutical industry, where he mastered the subjects of cash flow, investment risk, and capital return, subjects unaddressed, we can safely assume, by the curricula at Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard Law School.

Our speaker then returned to Washington as budget director in the first George W. Bush administration, where he attempted with passion and wit and intermittent success to restrain federal spending. I should note that he has been criticized for the profligate habits of the Bush years, but the record will show that, in the matter of budget deficits, the incumbent administration in its best year was three times worse than our speaker in his worst year.

By then roundly prepared for his dream job, our speaker moved back to Indiana and ran for governor. Elected in 2004 and then again in 2008, he has provided a model of frugal and imaginative governance. Compare him with his peers. When Governor Christie proposed minor labor reforms, the state of New Jersey shook with indignation. In New Jersey, as you know, indignation is rarely righteous — just indignant. When Governor Walker proposed minor labor reforms, the state of Wisconsin burst into flames. It is instructive to recall, when tempted to fight fire with fire, that the fire department itself uses water. Our speaker tonight, dousing the flames with anodyne rhetoric, signed legislation this year that makes Indiana the first right-to-work state since Oklahoma eleven years ago and the first right-to-work state ever in the industrialized Midwest. What price did the governor pay for this effrontery? Riots in the streets? Recall elections? A lecture on public morals from Al Sharpton? When he retires from office in the next few weeks, our speaker will carry with him approval ratings in the mid-60s, which, in Hoosier terms, is Larry Bird country. The governor’s record, eight years in, bears the hallmark of common-sense conservatism: thoroughgoing reform with no fuss and no feathers, the crystallization of what Bill Buckley used to celebrate as “the politics of reality.”

A few months ago, our speaker was chosen as the new president of Purdue University, a position he will assume early next year. Those of us who are concerned about American education like to think that we now have a firewall: that academic fads, expensively incubated in laboratories at coastal universities, will now disappear in a series of unexplained accidents somewhere in the vicinity of Lafayette, Indiana. Purdue is well known as a can-do kind of place, the alma mater of Gus Grissom, Neil Armstrong, Eugene Cernan, and 19 other U.S. astronauts. It will soon have a can-do president, and we look to it for thoroughgoing educational reform, with no fuss, no feathers.

Another hallmark of common-sense conservatism is the recognition that politics is and should be only one part of the well-lived life. You will thus not be surprised to learn that our speaker is a man of several parts, among them these:

‐ He is a four-tool second baseman in fantasy baseball camps.

‐ He is the leader of America’s least menacing biker gang.

‐ And he is the man who calmed an anxious nation by pledging never to make Purdue the Princeton of the Midwest.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Honorable Mitchell E. Daniels Jr.

— Neal B. Freeman is a longtime contributor to National Review.

Neal B. Freeman — Neal B. Freeman is a former editor and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line.

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