The Idealism Of Mitch Daniels

Mitch Daniels promised Indianans Hoosiers* he wouldn't run again. When the Republican governor sought his second term in 2008, he told his constituents in a campaign ad:
"Whatever your outlook on politics, here's some good news: this is the last time you'll have to watch me in an ad like this. See, governor's the only office I've run for or ever will. I have no ambition except the one we started with--to tackle Indiana's problems head on and leave a better place to our kids and theirs. We'd like to devote four more years of hard work to strengthening education, putting a permanent lid on property taxes, recruiting new jobs, and making college affordable for all. Rehire us, and we will."

It's an unconventional strategy--one that taps into mistrust of politicians and their ambitions. And it worked: Daniels won by 18 percentage points, and went on to his second term as governor. In accordance with Indiana's constitution, he can't seek another consecutive term.

Now Daniels is generating buzz as a potential GOP presidential candidate for 2012--and he staunchly stands by his statement, maintaining he will not run in 2012. In an interview set to air Sunday night on C-SPAN's "Q&A," Daniels articulates an idealistic vision of why he used a promise not to seek office again as collateral to trade for voters' trust in him.

"I suppose I said it because I wanted people to know that we're not on the make for anything else, that we really sincerely wanted a change to improve our state," Daniels tells host Brian Lamb.

"I hope the citizens of my state feel that, well, here for a while a group of people came and went from public service, who meant exactly what they said and really didn't have any other agenda," Daniels says.

Daniels has told Indianans Hoosiers that he wants to make improvements, and "We are almost religious about trying to live up to those words," he says.

Listening to Daniels, one gets the sense that he doesn't see much of a point to being the GOP's nominee in 2012. "In another old song from our era, it ain't me babe," he tells Lamb. Perhaps for Daniels, taking the reins of a fractured party with an ardent, vocally critical conservative wing doesn't hold much allure.

"[It's] really just not for me," he tells Lamb. "There's a lot about the way that people campaign for president right now that I find a little superficial."

"I wouldn't subject myself or my family to what I see as the savagery of presidential politics. If that's cowardly, then it is," Daniels says in the C-SPAN interview.

Ironically, these sentiments are loosely some of the same that propelled Barack Obama to the White House in 2008--particularly the fatigue with negative politics. Obama's message of hope and gestures toward positive campaigning (though his campaign, to be sure, launched many an attack) found traction with the public, and, I think at least, political fatigue played a part in that.

Obama saisfied a hunger for the post-political; Daniels has worked to do the same.

Republican ethics scandals proved problematic for the GOP in the 2006 midterms that swept Demcorats into Congressional majorities; Obama's no-lobbyists pledge was a play to that sentiment; similarly, Daniels' 2008 campaign ad set him up as an antithesis to corruption and self-interest.

In his idealism about how politics should work, Daniels offers a post-political appeal that, in some ways, is reminiscent of the president's. His demeanor on camera even, similarly, is cool. (Policy-wise, he's not so similar--most notably in his staunch opposition to Democratic cap-and-trade. But this discussion, I guess, is more about style and GOP branding than substance--not that branding is separate from policy. I digress.)

He wants to reach young people, and he got some attention for repudiating the baby boomers in a commencement address at Butler University.

There's a chance that Daniels is what the GOP needs: by turning his attention to education and health care for the uninsured, he has a potential to attract moderates. His conservative fiscal success, having turned around Indiana's budget deficit and his recent accusation of "imperial"ism in Democrats' cap-and-trade plans, should ring true with the GOP base. He sees the GOP in Indiana as a party of change, improvement, and reform.

From a national point of view, not having watched him work in Indiana for the last few years, he looks good.

He may have risen to the national stage a year too late to translate his Obama-like appeal--however Obama-like it actually is, when one gets down to it--into national electoral success, but he says he wants to play a part in shaping the GOP as it debates its future.

"I hope that maybe I can be of some use. Our party needs, obviously, a lot of work. It needs to look inwardly and think about how it can apeak more meaningfully to the porblems of today and to the Americans of today, and to the young people of today specifically," Daniels tells Lamb in the C-SPAN interview.

As his profile rises, it's increasingly likely other Republicans will listen to him.

*a reader from Indiana politely corrected me on this faux pas.