One of the most striking moments in this excellent book arrives on page 15, when Mitch Daniels notes that, in the early days of the American republic, currency often bore the Latin inscription Exitus in dubio est: “The outcome is in doubt.” The detail is telling for two reasons. It shows how the Founders were immersed in a classical culture to which most contemporary Americans pay absolutely no attention. And it proves that the founding generation did not believe their experiment in self-government was a sure shot.
The infant nation was threatened. For America to survive, it would have to avoid further conflict with the dominant superpower, the British Empire, not to mention the meddling Spanish and French. Nor was the fear of foreign invasion the only thing that worried Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. The authors of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution harbored grave doubts about the ability of mankind to control its passions and govern through “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.” American democracy, in their view, would be a test of American character — one not graded on a curve.
The problems on this test have appeared in different forms. We’ve waged war against slavery, fascism, Communism, and Islamism. We’ve fought inequality, corruption, trusts, and big government. Yet the substance has always been the same: In each case, America has defended itself against those Daniels calls the “Skeptics,” who believe that “most human beings are not capable of disciplining their appetites, postponing gratification for the sake of the long term, or deciding for the common good, and therefore cannot be trusted with the ultimate political control of society.” In each case, America has vindicated the founders’ idea that human beings are born capable of self-rule.
What makes this book so compelling is the force with which Daniels argues that, despite our many successes, the outcome remains in doubt. The challenge of America’s massive debt and unfunded liabilities may prove too hard for this generation to solve. “For the first time in my life,” Daniels writes, “I am desperately alarmed about the condition and direction of the American republic”: America faces a new enemy, the “Red Menace,” just as dangerous as her previous foes. The debt we’ve accumulated through profligacy and wishful thinking is liable to wreak devastation around the world.
And generations of deficit spending have already had an effect beyond economics: They have inculcated an entitlement mentality in the citizenry. We’ve come to believe that government “owes” us things that were never the government’s to deliver in the first place. A dependent people is an unfree people, and Daniels describes well the remarkable inversion that has occurred over the last several decades: “The traditional concept of public service has been stood on its head. With almost no one noticing, government workers rose from underpaid public servants to the position of a privileged elite.” Interest groups, meanwhile, continue to attach themselves to Leviathan’s belly and seek constantly to feed the beast. Optimism about the future has been eclipsed in the public mind by a sense of foreboding and national decline. World-famous columnists fantasize about America’s becoming “China for a day.”
Daniels’s goal in writing this book is to “challenge the idea that a government of and by the people is incapable of dealing with such a crisis once it has gone this far.” As evidence that democracies can face down the red menace, he offers his experience making state and federal government more efficient in Indiana and Washington, D.C. The book contains many wonderful stories of penny-pinching and belt-tightening. I chuckled when Daniels ordered an Indiana “efficiency crew” to put pennies on the tires of state vehicles to see whether the coins would still be there after one month — then got rid of the cars that hadn’t moved.
I cheered when the Indiana legislature passed an automatic state refund by which unspent money was returned to taxpayers at the end of the fiscal year. If only other states followed Daniels’s example! Governors across the country, as well as congressmen and bureaucrats active in transportation policy, also could learn a lot from his successful privatization of the Indiana Toll Road.
And yet as I read these passages I couldn’t help feeling angry and betrayed. For the structure, tone, and narrative of Keeping the Republic is exactly that which I have come to expect from books written by a major politician at the start of a great campaign. In this sort of book, the author devotes the first part to laying out the mess the country is in, the second part to a record of his achievements in dealing with smaller messes, and the final part to his prospective agenda for cleaning everything up.
The unwritten final sentence of such books is: “And that’s why I’m running for president.” But Daniels’s is the exception. Because he announced last May that he wouldn’t run for president, this otherwise wonderful story ends in something of an anticlimax. Keeping the Republic is a campaign book with no candidate.
Daniels had his reasons for not running: Family is more important than politics, and the Daniels family was against a presidential bid. Still, for those of us who remain more than a little disappointed in our options for president, the appearance of Keeping the Republic is nothing less than a provocation: Here, between two covers, is yet another reminder that the nation’s most accomplished governor, with experience in the private sector as well as in state and federal government, a man with a sharp mind, a decent character, and knowledge of the drivers of our debt, voluntarily removed himself from contention for our highest office.
At this writing, no candidate has followed what one might call the “Daniels Model”: calm, collected, straight-shooting, and self-deprecating analysis of the causes of and potential solutions to the gusher of spending coming from Washington. There’s plenty of bluster, to be sure. There’s more than enough red meat. There are even, if you look hard enough, policies to improve the economic outlook, reduce spending, and create jobs.
What the field still lacks, however, is a voice prepared to level with the country about the size of the debt and the tough decisions necessary to put America on a sustainable trajectory. Neither Paul Ryan nor Chris Christie answered the call. Rick Perry, to his credit, has been willing to speak provocatively about Social Security and Medicare. Michele Bachmann is implacable in her opposition to Obamacare. But, at any gathering of 2012 Republican presidential candidates, there is always a missing man: someone such as the governor of Indiana.
The Republican contenders are all decent people with impressive résumés. There’s a fair chance one of them will be the next president. And — this is to their credit — most of them would be unwilling to accept the “social truce” Daniels proposes. As far back as May 2010, Daniels said that conservatives might have to declare a truce on such issues as abortion in order to unite the country in a fight against the red menace. As he puts it here, “It does not belittle at all the importance of the social issues to point out that, in terms of the survival of the American experiment, they do not rival the Red Menace and the related dangers we face from our overwhelming debt.”
But is this really true? There are many people — millions of them, in fact — who believe that the human toll of 30-plus years of abortion on demand has been far more damaging to the American character and polity than spending too much money on health care for seniors. At a Republican debate in August, Michele Bachmann got it exactly right when she pointed out that “you can get money wrong, but you can’t get life wrong.” To disarm unilaterally in the middle of a decades-old fight — a fight that has coincided, uncoincidentally, with Republican success at the polls — would be not only wrong but foolish.
Worse still: Such a move would deny conservatives the opportunity to draw a connection between the unmooring of moral principle and America’s drift away from the ideas that animated the Founding.
Daniels concedes, for example, that “the breakdown of the traditional family over recent decades is a huge contributor to virtually every heartbreaking social pathology we face, and to economic difficulties.” Then is it really far-fetched to assert that the redefinition of the family, the flight from individual responsibility, and the preference for immediate gratification over self-control may be related to government’s inability to exercise fiscal restraint
And might it not be the case that the demand for entitlements will persist so long as Americans believe the purpose of government is to provide them stuff? Convincing voters otherwise will require more than charts and graphs. It will take a moral argument that relies on standards of right and wrong applicable, in Lincoln’s words, “to all men and all times”: that human beings are created equal, that governments are formed to secure the rights we possess in the state of nature, among them the right to life, liberty, and . . . you know the rest.
So, a social truce will not do. To the contrary: Perhaps it’s time to expand the definition of “social issues” to include fiscal and national-security matters that reflect the type of society in which we live. This is something Daniels clearly understands, since his call for the “social truce” hasn’t diminished his pro-life stance.
One can hope that the governor’s decision to abstain from the presidential race did not mark the end of his political career. Certainly every Republican now running would leap at the chance to have Gov. Mitch Daniels as his vice-presidential nominee. Think of how he’d crush Biden in debate. Think of all the good he could do in Washington. America still needs you, Mitch. Exitus in dubio est.
– Mr. Continetti is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard and author, most recently, of The Persecution of Sarah Palin.