Politics & Policy

The Present Red Menace: A Conversation with Mitch Daniels, Part II

Mitch Daniels at Purdue University, September 2018 (Purdue University / Rebecca Wilcox)
“I have no interest in standing in the rubble of our republic proclaiming ‘I told you so’”

Editor’s Note: Today is the second in a three-part series. Part I dealt with higher education.

As I mentioned earlier, Mitch Daniels started writing a column for the Washington Post two years ago. He had done some column-writing before — so he was familiar with “popping off at 750 words a clip,” as he says. For the Post, “I stay away from partisan matters,” he adds. He further notes that he does the same as president of Purdue — “religiously.”

In his Post column, he might write about higher-ed matters. Or he might find something offbeat. How about this, from October 2018? “I’ve met people of all stripes. I have my motorcycle to thank.”

“I may tap out at some point,” Daniels tells me, because there are many subjects the Post doesn’t need him to tell its readers about: “current events and politics and so forth.” I tell him I doubt he will tap out.

Plus, though he may steer clear of partisan matters, governmental matters are something else. Take the national debt, the new red menace.

Those words come from the title of a speech that Daniels gave in February 2011: “Debt Is the New ‘Red Menace.’” That speech was heard — or heard about — around the country. People still mention it to Daniels, with some regularity.

The old red menace, Communism, could not destroy us, but the new one, red ink, well might. This time, the danger comes from inside our own house (and House).

The national debt stands at over $23 trillion. The federal budget deficit is north of a trillion. And entitlements are menacingly unreformed.

Let me quote from a Daniels column last August: “Debt such as what we are now piling up will end badly. With entitlements and interest payments devouring available funds, the result will be some combination of economic catastrophe, the collapse of basic services or a disastrous weakening of national defense. For anyone still in denial, the Flat Earth Society is accepting applications.”

(Incidentally, our Kevin Williamson wrote about the Flat Earth Society in a recent issue of National Review: here.)

In my observation, no one in politics cares about this issue, in either party. It is indeed an “orphan issue,” Daniels remarks to me. This fact concerns him greatly, I hardly need to tell you. “Look at the failed regimes of history,” he says. “As often as not, this is what undid them. They took on obligations they couldn’t pay back and collapsed economically and societally. They were plunged into an emergency situation that they could not tax or otherwise oppress their way out of.”

In a long and eloquent sentence, he says that, before it is too late, he hopes we will see “a great act of political leadership and statesmanship” whereby “a person or a movement brings a consensus or a sufficient majority of Americans around to those steps that will be necessary — which because of our delay will be much more jolting than they needed to be — to keep us from going broke as a country.”

Daniels believes that help can come from most any direction. From “some independent person,” for example. In “our now-fractured politics,” he says, “I think the door is more open than before to third candidates, third movements, third parties — something.” Yet, in that column last August — the one I quoted from, above — he called for a Democratic Nixon. Only Nixon can go to China, they used to say. Maybe only a Democrat can tame the monster of debt? Can persuade the public to beat back the new red menace?

A Democrat, he tells me here in West Lafayette, “enjoys favorable presumptions, just by virtue of the label. If you’re a Republican, the stereotype is you don’t care about ordinary people. I spent many years in public life working to refute that every single day. Yet it is a millstone. Conversely, Democratic candidates have some negative presumptions that attach to that label, but it’s assumed they have a heart of gold.”

Daniels does not like the word “entitlements” — at all — pointing out that you will not find such a notion in our founding documents. But he uses it, I use it, and we all use it, because it is the accepted term. It will have to do for now.

In any event: Everyone knows, says Daniels, that entitlements are the drivers of the debt. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans benefits — they are all “noble undertakings,” he says, and most of us can agree that there ought to be a safety net that keeps people from falling into the gutter. But if you let these noble undertakings “run away,” he says — go out of control — then you will not have enough money for the destitute, or national defense, or anything else that is vital.

The two major political parties are “equally complicit” in this problem, says Daniels. And “I would be satisfied if they stopped making things worse. I mean, let’s get Hippocratic about it [First do no harm], then maybe we can work on reducing our exposure.”

I say to him, “Was Simpson-Bowles a good idea?” “Yes,” he says, emphatically, before I can get the complete sentence out of my mouth. He continues, “Was it the very best idea? No, because I don’t know what that is, and I’m sure there were other things that I might have done, or that someone else might have done, but . . .” “Was it better than what we’re doing now?” I interject. “Oh, my gosh,” says Daniels — yes.

“Simpson-Bowles” is a shorthand way of referring to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, created by President Obama in 2010, and chaired by Alan Simpson, the Republican former senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, the Democratic politician and university president from North Carolina who had been a Bill Clinton chief of staff. When their report came out, it was promptly rejected by both sides, Republican and Democratic.

This rejection was “such a wrong turn,” Daniels says. “We had a president who commissioned the report and walked away from it at the end, and I think that was such a shame. Erskine Bowles still has the best single sentence about the fix we’re in: ‘We face the most predictable economic crisis in history’ — meaning, it’s all there in the arithmetic.”

And talk about a Democratic Nixon, potentially: Barack Obama had “great field position,” says Daniels. He was in a position to say, “Look, we would rather we didn’t have to make some of these changes, but we need to do it in the interest of our children, in the interest of our future” — but no.

Sitting with Daniels, I return to the 2011 speech, the New Red Menace speech. He delivered it in Washington at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. On that occasion, the governor (as he was then) was introduced by George F. Will. When I mention this, Daniels smiles. CPAC had been asking Will to come speak, and he said he would be pleased to do so –provided they asked Daniels to speak and he could introduce him. “Since I believe he is the greatest journalist of our era,” says Daniels, “I have never found a compliment more gratifying.”

He adds that he has read Will’s new book, The Conservative Sensibility, and now understands “what the term magnum opus means.” He goes on to say, “I have to tell you: As long as I’ve read him and many other people, and as much as I thought I knew what I thought, he changed my mind about a couple three things in that book. It is incredibly illuminating.”

In his New Red Menace speech, Daniels said that collapse would be, among other things, cruel — cruel to the poor. He emphasizes that point again today, with me. Mitt Romney emphasized the same point when he campaigned for president in 2012 (to little applause). Daniels says, “If you want to know what I think the right set of answers is, I’ll be happy to tell you. But if we can’t do that, then I’m willing to hear second-best or third-best. I have no interest in standing in the rubble of our republic proclaiming ‘I told you so,’ or ‘You should have done it my way.’”

Just bite the bullet and get it the hell done, in other words.

Editor’s Note: This series will conclude tomorrow, with some thoughts about good government, the presidential nominating process, and Ronald Reagan.

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