Politics & Policy

The ‘Charisma of Competence’: A Conversation with Mitch Daniels, Part III

Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University, at the school’s homecoming in October 2019 (Purdue University)
On good government, the two major parties, and how to leave a job

Editor’s Note: This is the last in a three-part series. Part I dealt with higher education, primarily. Part II dealt with the national debt, primarily. This final part touches on a few more issues: governmental, political, and personal.

In a column last October, Mitch Daniels wrote, “Former governor Jim Edgar, a Republican, left Illinois in reasonable shape 20 years ago. When asked last year to comment on the state’s current wretched condition, he replied, ‘Good government is boring.’”

Too true, Daniels says to me, here in his office at Purdue. Good government is boring, all right — although I can’t help thinking of something that George Will said, when he introduced Daniels at CPAC in 2011. Will spoke of the “charisma of competence.”

Daniels believes there ought to be a consensus around one thing, and it is this: Whatever the government does, it should do well. Now, you, like him (and me), may think that government ought to be very careful about what it gets involved in. That it should be limited to its enumerated powers. On the contrary, you may favor a larger, more involved, more expansive and expensive government.

But whatever government you favor, you should want it to work well.

“I was always preaching this to our folks in the state administration,” says Daniels. “One reason to do things well is that people paid for them, and they deserve it. A second reason is, we want them to have confidence. If we can actually get you in and out of a Bureau of Motor Vehicles branch, as we did here, in under ten or twelve minutes, if you have to go at all; if we send you your tax refund, which you have lent to the government at no interest, in a week or two rather than months; if we can build the roads we promised to build and never did — it will build public confidence that the gang can occasionally shoot straight. Then, when we come along with the next suggestion, people may listen to us a little more intently.”

Good government ought to be a good sell. But that’s not necessarily the case. Being a free-marketeer, Daniels believes that “incentives tell you almost everything,” in economics and other spheres — and “the incentives in politics rarely lead the practitioners, whether left or right, to concentrate on the kind of grungy work of making government happen and making it efficient.”

In a column a couple of weeks ago, Daniels wrote, “Since its emergence in the republic’s earliest years, the two-party system has served the nation well. A look at the travails of Italy, Israel or even Britain today should be enough to deter those tempted by a fragmented, multiparty alternative.”

At the same time, America is at a curious pass, he expounds to me. “Are two parties better than three or more? Yes, they are, but it’s not impossible to imagine a third party arising in the country, displacing one of the other two, or absorbing it. Where are the Whigs? That’s just speculation.”

The two parties’ “tents” are shrinking, he and I agree. And the country seems more polarized by the day — as almost everyone agrees. The parties’ presidential nominations, says Daniels, are controlled by their “edges.”

He began a column last May as follows:

So here we are in another presidential campaign season (when aren’t we?), and the air is thick with greenhouse gas of the political variety. When candidates take a break from talking about themselves, they generally turn to “bold” policy pronouncements that they hope will prove eye-catching enough to separate them from the thundering herd of wannabe Washingtons and Roosevelts.

Thanks to the modern primary-dominated process — designed with the goal of returning nominations to “the people” but, instead, captive to the parties’ political fringes — these policy ideas tend to fall in two unfortunate classes. The first consists of those crafted to massage the erogenous zones of extremists. The second is those policies chosen for their divisiveness quotient, the extent to which they underscore the stark difference between Us and Them, and the proponent’s passionate commitment to Us.

Almost all share the common denominator of absurd impracticality. They have given us a new definition of the admirable adjective “aspirational,” now taken to mean “I know it’s preposterous, so don’t hold me to it.”

Here with me in West Lafayette, he puts in a good word for the smoke-filled room, that much-scorned venue of yore. (In recent years, I too have seen that room in a different, more positive light.) “Why were people in those rooms?” Daniels asks. “What were they doing there? They were trying to pick someone who could win, and that meant someone who would have broad appeal.”

He notes that, right this moment, many Democrats are “openly wringing their hands,” because they sense that the process might give them a nominee “with whom a broad majority could not get comfortable.”

At the end of our conversation, I pump Mitch Daniels for a Reagan story or two. He gives me one — one he has often shared, to illustrate something larger. In 1986 or so, somewhere out West, Reagan gave a speech that went like gangbusters. As the crowd cheered, Reagan left the stage and someone in the wings said, “Mr. President, sounds like they want an encore.” Reagan laughed and said, “Oh, no: The first rule of showbiz is, Always leave ’em wanting a little more.”

Daniels says, “As my time in the last job was coming to a close” — he means the governorship of Indiana — “we had a lot of folks, young and some not so young, who were very emotional. My gosh, we’ve just spent eight years turning this state upside down and fixing everything, and we’re a totally different place. One girl said to me, ‘Governor, I’ll never be involved in anything so important again.’ And I told them, ‘No, no. Listen, everything ends sometime.’”

This job of his — the presidency of Purdue — which he clearly loves so much? It too will end by and by, as Daniels notes. The question for all of us, he says — whatever we happen to be doing — is, “How do you want it to end? Do you want to go out like Sandy Koufax or Willie Mays?” He hastens to say that he “idolized” Mays, but “he played a few seasons that were not at all up to his standards.”

Daniels continues, “If you’re fortunate enough to finish an assignment — I don’t care if it’s your first job or the end of your working days — if you’re fortunate enough to finish the assignment and you’ve still got your mojo and you haven’t run dry of good ideas and you’re leaving things in better shape — like they taught us in Cub Scouts: Leave the campsite cleaner than you found it — then that’s a cause for celebration, and that’s the way you want to think about it.”

Leaving his office, I find myself a little sad. The Republican party would never nominate such a man for president, I think, and the country at large would never elect such a man. But that may be wrong. (I’m in a bit of a cynical mood.) And Mitch Daniels and his like — not that there are many — help the country regardless, in their manifold ways.

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