Mitch Daniels: The One to Watch

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There are candidates who are seeking to become the GOP's 2012 heartthrob. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is the guy they never thought about dating who nonetheless may be able to talk them into it.

One thing was clear at the Conservative Political Action Conference's Ronald Reagan Centennial Dinner Friday night, where the short, balding former George W. Bush budget director and possible 2012 presidential contender gave the keynote address: Daniels is a natural.

He spoke like a smart man talking self-confidently to an audience he respected, with none of the stagey hand gestures and theatrical tics of most politicians. He argued with what he knew to be his audience's expectations, seeking to prod and move their thinking. And, most critically, Daniels clearly got that we remain in a cultural moment where the viciousness of our public discourse is exceeded only by our longing to rise above it.

"Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers," he told the assembled at CPAC.

"We must be the vanguard of recovery, but we cannot do it alone," he said. "We have learned in Indiana, big change requires big majorities. We will need people who never tune in to Rush or Glenn or Laura or Sean. Who surf past C-SPAN to get to SportsCenter. Who, if they'd ever heard of CPAC, would assume it was a cruise ship accessory."

He took on those in Congress who have made a religion of their crusade against earmarks for tilting at budgetary windmills.

"Lost to history is the fact that, in my OMB assignment, I was the first loud critic of Congressional earmarks. I was also the first to get absolutely nowhere in reducing them: first to rail and first to fail," he said.

"They are a pernicious practice and should be stopped. But, in the cause of national solvency, they are a trifle. Talking much more about them, or 'waste, fraud, and abuse,' trivializes what needs to be done, and misleads our fellow citizens to believe that easy answers are available to us."

He warned that our national debt is a threat to our security, and that even the defense budget ought to come in for scrutiny. "Nothing, not even the first and most important mission of government, our national defense, can get a free pass," he said. "I served in two administrations that practiced and validated the policy of peace through strength. It has served America and the world with irrefutable success. But if our nation goes over a financial Niagara, we won't have much strength and, eventually, we won't have peace. We are currently borrowing the entire defense budget from foreign investors. Within a few years, we will be spending more on interest payments than on national security. That is not, as our military friends say, a 'robust strategy.'"

He called not for tax cuts alone -- no tired talk of the "death tax" for him -- but for growth that lifts the middle class. "We must display a heart for every American, and a special passion for those still on the first rung of life's ladder. Upward mobility from the bottom is the crux of the American promise, and the stagnation of the middle class is in fact becoming a problem, on any fair reading of the facts," he said. "Our main task is not to see that people of great wealth add to it, but that those without much money have a greater chance to earn some."

And he warned against making opposition to government an end in itself, while nonetheless seeking to diminish its centrality. "We should distinguish carefully skepticism about Big Government from contempt for all government. After all, it is a new government we hope to form, a government we will ask our fellow citizens to trust to make huge changes."

In short, while he delivered some red meat and zingers -- calling debt the new "Red Menace" -- he cast himself as a politician attuned to our post-Tucson shooting times.

"I urge a ... thoughtfulness about the rhetoric we deploy in the great debate ahead," he said. "I suspect everyone here regrets and laments the sad, crude coarsening of our popular culture. It has a counterpart in the venomous, petty, often ad hominem political discourse of the day.

"When one of us -- I confess sometimes it was yours truly -- got a little hotheaded, President Reagan would admonish us, 'Remember, we have no enemies, only opponents.' Good advice, then and now."

Whether he decides to run or not, he's got the most interesting and freshest message of the potential GOP contenders.

If he doesn't run, it's one the other contenders would do well to steal.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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