Mitch Daniels Is the Tea Party's Dream Candidate

Thanks to the dysfunctional conservative movement, they just don't know it yet

mitch with will.jpg

Everything is upside down in the Republican primaries. The GOP establishment is rallying behind a principled candidate with a proven conservative track record. That's upsetting the conservative base: on talk radio and right wing blogs, they concede that the man in question governs as a staunch conservative, but insist his candidacy isn't viable because he lacks charisma and electability.

What explains this bizzaro reaction to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who hasn't yet declared? Since when does the Inside the Beltway crowd need to sell the base on a conservative's electability? These are timely questions. Over the next two weeks, Daniels is going to decide whether or not to seek the GOP nomination. The perception of his candidacy is surely one factor he'll consider, along with his ability to raise funds -- he's gauging it -- and the media attention he receives next week when he visits Washington, D.C., to headline a Senate GOP fundraising dinner.

So, Republican primary voter, should you encourage Daniels to run, as Jeb Bush, Laura Bush, John Boehner, Haley Barbour, and many others have done? Or is he so flawed a candidate that he isn't worth your time, as his critics insist? It is evident to me that moderate and conservative Republicans alike would benefit from his candidacy. In a general election, libertarians like me would likely support him against President Obama. Furthermore, the arguments offered by his most staunch critics exemplify how the conservatism movement has betrayed its ideals. But perhaps you'll disagree. Let's delve deeper into Daniels' biography, his appeal to some Republicans, and the specific criticisms he suddenly faces so that you can make up your own mind.

Profile of A Hoosier  
The definitive profile of Mitch Daniels was written for The Weekly Standard by Andrew Ferguson, who capably captures the appeal of Indiana's penny-pinching, Harley riding governor. In his last gubernatorial election, he won more votes than anyone in Indiana history, including a majority of the youth vote and 20 percent of the black vote, unheard of numbers for a conservative Republican. In a recession he has made deep spending cuts and managed to retain approval ratings between 60 and 70 percent. And his achievements aren't merely political:

When Daniels took office, in 2004, the state faced a $200 million deficit and hadn't balanced its budget in seven years. Four years later, all outstanding debts had been paid off; after four balanced budgets, the state was running a surplus of $1.3 billion, which has cushioned the blows from a steady decline in revenues caused by the recession. "That's what saved us when the recession hit," one official said. "If we didn't have the cash reserves and the debts paid off, we would have been toast." The state today is spending roughly the same amount that it was when Daniels took office, largely because he resisted the budget increases other states were indulging in the past decade. No other state in the Midwest--all of them, like Indiana, dependent on a declining manufacturing sector--can match this record.

Impressive if you're a fiscal hawk, right? Daniels even has irresistible anecdotes that appeal to the belief that things would be better if common sense reformers would just cut the waste out of government. "In the early days of the administration he had a hunch that the government owned more cars than it could use," says Ryan Kitchell, a Daniels staffer. "Lieutenants were dispatched to the parking lots of state facilities to place pennies on a tire of each car. They returned in a month and if the pennies were still there, we said, 'Give us the keys.' " Adds Ferguson: "To save on paper, a study was made to find the narrowest type font. Most state newsletters, once printed in color, are now in black and white. The state no longer pays for employee business cards. Agencies that were discovered to be net-users of paper clips -- another study -- were put in touch with the revenue service, which had a surplus of clips sent by taxpayers with their tax forms."

More broadly, Daniels staffed Indiana's government with thrifty stars from the business world, ended collective bargaining for public employees, cut the overall tax burden, earned his state a Triple-A bond rating, cut the levels of public employees to levels not seen since the early 1980s, drastically reduced waiting times at the DMV, helped single mothers collect on child support, and improved the state's education system and transportation infrastructure. A progressive Democrat looking at his tenure would object to various Daniels policies. But a  Republican?

In the Hoosier state, even most independents are thrilled.

The Conservative Case Against DanielsIt's only fair to afford one of the most staunch Mitch Daniels critics an opportunity to have her say. Jennifer Rubin, a widely read conservative blogger recently hired by The Washington Post, has written numerous items going after the Indiana governor and denigrating his chances as a presidential candidate:

He's been a successful governor, implemented health-care reform that doesn't rely on forcing people to buy insurance they don't want, has a strong education plan and has won two statewide elections. In other words, his track record is nearly as good as Tim Pawlenty's. He is smart, articulate, good with facts and figures, and is, by any measure, a serious candidate. In his gubernatorial runs he proved to be a very effective, down-to-earth candidate that could relate to relatively non-ideological, middle-class voters, the very ones who will be up for grabs in 2012. He is solidly grounded in a limited-government perspective. He has been an outspoken opponent of cap-and-trade.

Wait, that isn't the relevant passage -- but yes, even his staunchest critics concede all that before getting to "the downside":

He seems to have gone out of his way to needlessly antagonize social conservatives with his "truce" talk and anger hawks, by embracing defense cuts and suggesting America should do less in the world. He appears overly eager to seek the advice of and incur the approval of non-conservative elites.

In this telling, he's an electable general election candidate who reliably implements policies conservatives love... but his rhetoric isn't to their liking! (And his fiscal conservatism extends to the Pentagon.) It isn't a very flattering portrait of the GOP base -- how much meaningless emotional coddling do they require to support a champion of their policies? Rubin adds that "he has indicated his receptivity to a value-added tax... And his tunnel vision on debt control, if adhered to in office, would wind up lacking focus on economic growth." That sums it up. From a conservative standpoint, Daniels isn't perfect on taxes, just much better overall than almost everyone else seeking the nomination, and his biggest flaw will be focusing too much on the issue the tea party regards as core to the survival of the nation. Is he the candidate for the hardest core social conservatives? Probably not. Despite talk of a truce on social issues, however, he seems a better choice by their lights than numerous other candidates in contention.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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