Mitch Daniels and 'The Butler Way'

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In the buildup to the men's Final Four on Saturday, sports writers will incessantly gush about Butler's style of play, dubbed "The Butler Way."

In a tournament full of teams that often employ "one and done" mercenary athlete-students who are only in college because NBA by-laws mandate that they attend for a year, Butler refreshingly has student-athletes who have played together long enough to resemble an actual team.

And it shows on the court. They make the extra pass. Help each other on defense. Box out on rebounds. And they seem to genuinely enjoy selflessly putting the team above individual statistics.

If there is a figure who exemplifies "The Butler Way" in politics, which is becoming more hackish, partisan, intellectually dishonest and unbearable, it may be Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. When he addressed Butler University's class of 2009 at legendary Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Daniels spoke of his lifelong appreciation of "the Butler Way," the credo of the school and its basketball team that revolves around five principles: humility, passion, unity, thankfulness, and servanthood.

Sure, Daniels has neither the flash of a Sarah Palin nor the money and ambition of a Mitt Romney. He doesn't have the team of slick and savvy media strategists like Tim Pawlenty. And he lacks the good looks of a John Thune or a Paul Ryan (Daniels has a receding hairline and is listed generously at 5 foot 7, though Daniels can potentially turn his height into a strength by saying he represents and fights for the little man).

But if Daniels ever changed his mind about running--or if persuasive citizens convince him to do so--he would possess a quality most of his potential 2012 GOP opponents lack: a substantive record that can directly challenge Barack Obama's vulnerabilities and make him a formidable challenger. And that is why his potential as a serious GOP presidential candidate, despite his repeated utterances and reassurances that he does not want to seek that office, should never be underestimated.

To voters concerned about America's growing budget deficit, Daniels can tell them that he inherited a deficit and is now one of the few governors presiding over a budget surplus. He is, after all, referred to as "the Blade."

For the Hoosiers who want a government that is lean but user friendly and efficient, he can tell them that he even increased the approval ratings of Indiana's DMV by making it more efficient.

To voters concerned about health care, he can tell them that he insured Hoosiers who weren't poor enough to qualify for government assistance and not wealthy enough to purchase private insurance with his Healthy Indiana program, which utilized personal health savings accounts in a way that promoted personal responsibility and was consistent with free market principles while providing a safety net for catastrophic medical emergencies. And his plan was fully paid for by raising cigarette taxes and reallocating some of the states Medicaid funds, for which Indiana had to get approval.

For those who want a bipartisan consensus builder, Daniels can tell them that he won reelection by winning Indiana's independent voters and over-performing among young voters, Democrats, and minorities even in an election year when Obama surprisingly won Indiana.

And while Obama campaigned on turning the page on the polarizing politics associated with the Boomer generation--and that generation's first two presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush--Obama's presidency has not been able to escape the bitter partisanship familiar to both of his predecessors. In many ways, the vitriol, rancor, and divisiveness seem to have gotten worse.

To be fair, there are factors beyond Obama's control--like gerrymandered congressional districts, 24-hour news, the rise of new media that has become more relevant even as it fragments the news cycle, and Republicans intent on opposing the president at every step to maximize turnout for an off-year election that is often dominated by partisans--that have created an environment where potshots and partisanship get rewarded over reasoned dialogue and consensus-building. And these factors are not likely to go away. In fact, they are likely to intensify on both sides of the aisle.

If you ask Daniels, he'd probably blame a lot of it on the "me first" mentality of his Boomer generation. He said as much in his commencement address at Butler when he scolded his generation for bringing that "me first" mentality into the political arena and lamented that: "Year after year, regardless which party we picked to lead the country, we ran up deficits that have multiplied the debt you and your children will be paying off your entire working lives. Far more burdensome to you mathematically, we voted ourselves increasing levels of Social Security pensions and Medicare health care benefits, but never summoned the political maturity to put those programs on anything resembling a sound actuarial footing. ... In sum, our parents scrimped and saved to provide us a better living standard than theirs; we borrowed and splurged and will leave you a staggering pile of bills to pay. It's been a blast; good luck cleaning up after us."

The clean-up needs to start sooner rather than later, and Daniels can potentially lead it. I see two ways Daniels can potentially ask voters to trust him to lead the "clean up" of the political and fiscal mess the country is in.

He could implore his generation, which he criticized as likely to be remembered for not much besides its numbers, to spend its sunset years coming together and piecing together a political system that they have been accused of shattering so they can be remembered as the generation that finally found its way and used its restless energy for good instead of as a generation that left a mess for its kids to clean up. He could ask Boomers to unite around a common cause--to make personal sacrifices for the fiscal soundness of the country. And if he succeeded, he would instantly differentiate himself from Presidents Clinton (whose gave in to the personal and threw away his political capital at the precise moment he was figuring out how to be a consensus builder), Bush (who, at the least, did not get the most out of the political capital that tragic 9/11 attacks gave him), and Obama (who, halfway into his first term, has been criticized for being detached and professorial and seen his approval rating plummet faster than any of his predecessors).

Or perhaps Daniels could promise voters that he would govern without caring about being reelected. And then prove that he meant it. He can propose needed entitlement and tax code reforms (i.e. raising the retirement age on social security and cutting out various tax breaks to special interests, just to name a few) without worrying about offending the array of interest groups such reforms would inevitably enrage. He can promise to end the shady accounting tricks, not pander, and just be honest--even to groups that such needed reforms would hurt.

This would be courageous--and politically selfless. One could say it could be called "The Butler Way." And if he were to be successful, historians may even dub it "The Daniels Way."

I concede that this scenario may be a bit too fanciful and hopeful, especially when one considers that Daniels goes out of his way to say he doesn't even want to run for president. It also puts mighty expectations on just one political figure and on a generation not known for putting the "we" before "me."

But if the last presidential election cycle taught us anything, it was that a little bit of hope can still go a long way.

Tony Lee is a conservative writer: Follow him on twitter @TheTonyLee.

Thumbnail image credit: Shawn Thew/Getty Images

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Tony Lee contributes to The Atlantic Online. Follow him on Twitter: @TheTonyLee.

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