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Flashback Gives Glimpse of Daniels' Political Skills

Flashback Gives Glimpse of Daniels' Political Skills

By Erin McPike - February 25, 2011

As Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels navigates what appears to be an increasingly treacherous political minefield as he contemplates a presidential run, it may be instructive to view how he's handled himself in past political situations.

Right after the 1986 midterm elections, when the GOP lost eight Senate seats on his watch as political director of the Reagan White House - and Republicans were staring down what appeared to be a tough 1988 presidential election - Daniels plunked himself down in front of veteran Washington journalists Rowland Evans Jr. and Bob Novak for an interview on the duo's CNN show. He easily swatted down a series of questions about the party's political positioning in light of the midterms and the fallout from the Iran-Contra scandal, earning him glowing praise from Evans.

This week, Daniels has steeled himself against a media and rightwing onslaught for dropping right to work legislation in Indiana and choosing not to send state troopers after Democratic lawmakers who fled the Hoosier State to avoid voting on the legislation. Forced to clarify comments that were misconstrued by some media outlets on Tuesday, Daniels has held a press conference every day this week and is holding national interviews to make his position clear.

In the same way, Daniels came out swinging in his Jan. 4, 1987, appearance on CNN's "Evans and Novak," to such an extent that Evans sought out Anthony Dolan, who served President Reagan as chief speechwriter for his entire presidency, and urged him to view Daniels' appearance.

The reason, Dolan said, was what Evans told him: "It was one of the finest performances by a political operative they had ever seen, particularly one that he and Bob Novak were deliberately trying to trap or embarrass."

In introducing Daniels on the program, Novak mentioned the scandal and the GOP's heavy losses and said, "Nobody has been closer to the situation than Mitch Daniels, an architect of President Reagan's activist campaign to try to save the Senate last year."

A calm and unflinching Daniels handled the pair's questions about the GOP's positioning ahead of the 1988 election by noting that the Republican Party had a built-in advantage with an Electoral College that tilted in favor of the party.

"I don't see a Democrat, an individual potential nominee, who I find all that frightening for next time. They've got big problems of their own to solve, as we do," he continued.

And in a line that his potential campaign is almost certain to trot out again, he defended President Reagan when Novak asked him if Reagan's presidency was on the skids as his administration barreled into its final two years.

"I think the point there is that conservatives who owe their entire political existence to Ronald Reagan may have lost heart and lost gumption, but he hasn't," he said. "There's a big agenda yet to be completed. And just because maybe you folks are tired of writing about SDI [the Strategic Defense Initiative], or the Central America freedom fighter issue, does not mean that those agenda items have been completed. On the contrary, there are some big-ticket items yet to be addressed and defended."

He went on to handle a line of questions about the White House's supervision in the Iran-Contra affair and defended Reagan while taking care not to discuss publicly his request that then-chief of staff Donald Regan leave his post.

Asked by Novak later if federal health insurance for catastrophic illnesses is a good agenda item for Republicans, Daniels said, "I sure do, and I'm glad you asked, Bob."

"You're always talking about being in touch with the grassroots," he continued. "I don't know how you could have missed this one worse than you have. You have said that this has to do with coddling up to Democrats. It doesn't. The biggest problem we faced in this election, over half the Senate elections held, the No. 1 issue for the Democrats was Social Security and care of the elderly. This is a grassroots issue of importance to 50 million Americans."

The last question Novak asked Daniels was if he thought it was a bad idea to raise the salaries of operatives, members of Congress and Cabinet officials above $100,000 per year, and he said it was.
As governor of Indiana two decades later, Daniels takes home about $95,000 per year.

At the close of the show when Evans and Novak reflected on their guest, Evans pointed out that it's rare to meet an honest politician but said, "He's a very honest man."

Flash forward to 2004, and Daniels trusted himself enough to shoot 30-minute "reality TV" episodes about his gubernatorial campaign, which his campaign repeated in 2008.

That Daniels has been so active in the media and politically deft under pressure underscores what has been missing from the discussions about his potential presidential candidacy.

Layered beneath the buzz that he has the most abundant economic record of any potential candidate in the Republican field but may lack charisma is his storied career as a political operative that included his stint in the White House, as well as a campaign manager for Indiana GOP Sen. Richard Lugar and executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Dolan put it this way: "This notion that Mitch is just a policy wonk is preposterous. He's a very skillful polemicist."

And for that reason, he noted, "That's why Mitch's presence in the televised debates will be galvanizing."

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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