The Agenda

Ross and Packer on Mitch Daniels

Ross has written a characteristically excellent column on Mitch Daniels. 

“There’s been some very healthy hell-raising going on in the country,” he said of the Tea Parties. “But to my knowledge, nobody’s gotten up in front of those rallies and explained what’s going to have to happen.” His ideal approach to the deficit would look like Paul Ryan’s fiscal roadmap, all spending restraint and no new taxes. But one way or another, deficit reduction “has to be done” — even if “you have to take the second- or third-best method.”

All this honesty might evaporate on the campaign trail. And if it didn’t, would Daniels have a prayer? He’s admired by elites, but unknown at the grass-roots level. He’s a social conservative, and his gubernatorial campaigns have played the populist card successfully — but he lacks the built-in constituencies of other candidates. And his years’ carrying water for the Bush administration’s budgets would doubtless be used against him in the battle for the Tea Partiers’ affections.

And as Ross notes, Daniels has an admirable tendency to go respond quickly to failure.

His “Healthy Indiana” plan, which offers catastrophic coverage to low-income residents, aspires to eventually cover 130,000 people, about a third of the state’s long-term uninsured. He’s pushed targeted investments in kindergarten programs, the police force and the child welfare office. And he’s been a pragmatic free-marketeer, rather than a strict ideologue. His controversial decision to lease the Indiana toll road reaped $3.8 billion for the state. But when an attempt to outsource welfare enrollment went awry, Daniels yanked the system back into the public sector.

This reminds me of George Packer’s blog post on Ross’s column. (Ah, the blogosphere!) Packer notes that Daniels gave overly rosy cost estimates of the Iraq War. Given how difficult it is for the CBO to score IMAC, I have to say, rosy cost estimates of the Iraq War strike me as fairly anodyne. My sense is that there were implicit pressures on Daniels to underestimate the potential costs, and that he was following the rosy scenarios offered by defense planners. This does not reflect well on Daniels. What does reflect well on him, however, is that he left government, sensing that he could do more at the state level, with executive authority, than he could as a senior staffer in a White House focused on the war on terror rather than long-term fiscal sustainability. Granted, Daniels could have left office earlier, but in doing so he might have damaged his political viability, which is to say his ability to solve problems in his home state.

I’m struck by the fact that Packer doesn’t mention the fact that Daniels fought Indiana Republicans to raise taxes on high earners. In Republican circles, this is a fairly serious ideological departure. He made the case that if programs had to be cut, the most affluent Hoosiers would have to make a sacrifice as well. He lost the debate, but it does give some context for Daniels’s political mettle. 

Lastly, I’ll note that I wrote one of the first Mitch for President columns in late November of 2008. I think it holds up reasonably well. Interesting that I was obsessed with the auto bailout even then, in those distant, more innocent days.

P.S. On reflection, it’s worth noting that Packer actually levels a more serious charge, which I can’t fairly evaluate.

And Daniels persisted in his refusal to face reality even after the war began. In the spring and summer of 2003, with Baghdad looted and Iraq’s infrastructure disintegrating and Iraqis losing patience and the insurgency just beginning, around the Republican Palace, where the Americans of the Coalition Provisional Authority were trying to bring some order to Iraq, the name Mitch Daniels was often mentioned, without much love. C.P.A. officials faulted the O.M.B. man back in Washington for nickel-and-diming their every request for money. The Americans started out with just twenty-five thousand dollars to resurrect Iraq’s collapsed ministries, and even this meager sum came not as cash but in the form of grants that required several weeks for approval. American officials were desperate for money before the window of opportunity closed. One of them told me, “In post-conflict reconstruction, you need to have the ability to deliver the resources right away. People in a desperate situation need help. Boy, that’s a blindingly obvious insight. The next thing is that if you’re not giving them help, they’re going to go somewhere else.”

Did the OMB director really have this kind of authority? This really strains credulity, but Packer is a fair reporter, so perhaps there is something to this. 

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