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Mitch Daniels' Moment, and Dilemmas

Mitch Daniels' Moment, and Dilemmas

By David Paul Kuhn - February 16, 2011

The man tends to meet the moment in presidential politics. Successors often compensate for struggling presidents' weaknesses. George H.W. Bush's aloof feel for the recession was followed by Bill Clinton's common touch. Clinton's personal impropriety paved the way for the most openly religious president in the modern day. The folksy George W. Bush, weighed down by the Iraq war, leads to the professorial president who wooed liberals with his opposition to the same war.

This is Mitch Daniels' moment. Conservatives' galvanizing cause--fiscal profligacy, debt nightmares, expansive liberal governance--falls within Daniels' wheelhouse. He is the right's wonk-star that could, and has. The Indiana governor turned deficit to surplus. His stewardship earned Indiana its first ever triple-A bond rating from Standard and Poor's. And he's flourished for the hard choices. Daniels is one of the nation's most popular governors.

But Daniels has mountains between him and the White House. Profiles note the manifest. Daniels is 5-foot-7 and true to the budget-guru type. There's also the wherewithal question that dogs most potential contenders, can Daniels compete in the money race?

It's the mountain of Daniels' making that is, perhaps, his most-immediate obstacle. The governor personifies Republicans' most exercised bloc, tea party activists. But he has also riled Republicans' most dependable bloc, social conservatives. (Obama failed to gain ground with white weekly churchgoers in 2008.)

Last year, Daniels told the Weekly Standard that the next president would have to call a "truce on the so-called social issues" to establish a coalition large enough to master America's debt crisis. He has stood by the comment.

"Unless he does a mea culpa--I was wrong--he has no chance of winning the nomination," said Richard Land, one of the nation's most politically seasoned social conservative leaders. "You can't win the nomination without pro life and pro family votes and they are not going to vote for him when he says you have to go to the back of the bus. Those days are over."

Daniels' words awakened social conservatives' enduring political anxiety. Christian right leaders--from Pat Robertson to the late Jerry Falwell to Land--all expressed to me over the years one unanimous gripe with the Republican professional class: the coalition that courts them to win office often forgets them in office. That critique faded with the younger Bush presidency. "Reagan talked a good game but I think Bush is delivering," Robertson told me in 2006. It's the unique context of the offense that therefore causes offense. "He opened up an old wound; it was not a comment made in a vacuum," Land agreed.

Daniels should not be in this situation. He has attended the same Presbyterian church for a half century. He helped found a private Christian primary school serving inner city Indianapolis. Daniels has consistently opposed abortion. He is no Rudy Giuliani.

"Daniels is, to the bone, a moral and cultural conservative," said Michael Cromartie, a longtime analyst of social conservative politics. Cromartie believes Daniels can recover. "There will be meetings that occur with certain religious cultural conservatives where he says if Ginsburg retires, the kind of issues I'm going to want to nominate are the following."

Daniels' strength would aid those talks. Social conservatives are generally fiscal conservatives and skeptical of the welfare state. Pew polling found in 2005, hardly a time great debt anxiety, that about six in 10 social conservatives believed the "government today can't afford to do much more to help the needy." 

Daniels is banking on this indirect appeal. There Daniels was Friday night, at the nation's premier conservative conference, giving a remarkably brave speech. Other 2012 potential contenders --Romney, Gingrich, Pawlenty, Barbour--offered conventional base appeals.

"Purity and martyrdom is for suicide bombers," Daniels told his audience. "Change of the dimension we need requires a coalition of a dimension no one has recently assembled." But the thrust of his speech, at the aptly named "Ronald Reagan Banquet," was a comparison between today's debt crisis and the "red menace" of Reagan's day.

Washington Post conservative blogger, Jennifer Rubin, noted that Daniels avoided national security issues and "seemed indifferent to the flap about his support for and then retreat from a ‘truce' on social issues."

But Daniels' faced the social issue flap, like all his weaknesses, by enlarging his strength. It was textbook political jujitsu. Reagan's unambiguous stance against communism played a critical role uniting the coalition that still bears his name--the Christian right saw communism as the great godless foe. It helped religious Christians forget the divorced candidate from Hollywood who rarely attended church.

Daniels is likely trying to turn the vice of his virtue into the only virtue that counts. But the right does not view debt in the same existential terms as it did communism. Conservative activists do, however, see the debt in severe terms (see tea party movement).

Daniels' offense also provides political advantage. He can authentically claim to have done what few primary candidates dare: he has substantively challenged his base. Neither Obama nor John McCain delivered so bold a speech in 2007. Of course, there's a reason for that. Political bases expect to be wooed, not insulted. Yet, as Land said of his breed of Republicans, conservatives generally "believe in redemption."

And this is possible partly because of that larger desire, on the right, for fiscal conservative redemption. Columnist George Will noted Friday night, in his introduction of Daniels, that the Indiana governor has the "charisma of competence."

Daniels has a measure of old-fashioned charisma as well. He can, at least, deliver a speech as well as Mitt Romney and match Romney's executive biography. But it's difficult to imagine Romney regularly staying at constituents' homes, as Daniels famously does. Daniels has reach to white and blue collar alike.

Still, Daniels' formative asset is competence. It's why he could be a contender. Competence is usually not enough in the television age. Daniels is more the chief financial officer than chief executive. But these are not normal times. The nerd is rising throughout Republican ranks. Debt is at the fore of the American mind. Daniels is viable because it's a wonk's time.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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