Is America ready for a president who will cut spending? Our November cover story.
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“ANY FAIR READING of the nation’s balance sheet suggests we’re in a dangerous moment,” says Daniels. “If we don’t act soon, we don’t have a prayer.” What is needed, Daniels contends, is a president who will do whatever it takes to get the country’s fiscal house in order, political consequences be damned. Think Ross Perot without the resemblance to that crazy aunt in the basement.
Daniels is coy about whether he would like to be that president, but he is already beginning to cobble together the message. “Nobody wants as their legacy plundering their children and grandchildren’s inheritance,” he says. “I think the American people are beginning to understand that we are spending money that we don’t have. The Tea Party has raised consciousness.”
“Social Security needs to be protected from inflation, that’s it,” Daniels continues. “Who are the real enemies of Social Security and Medicare? The people who want to keep them exactly as they are right now.” The responsibility to fixing these programs and restoring them to solvency, he says, is about to fall “on the party whose uniform I wear.”
In that sense, though Daniels eagerly identifies as a supply-sider, he is the anti-Jack Kemp. Kemp argued that budget-cutting was a form of “root-canal politics,” a model of austerity that could not compete with income redistribution the way a model of growth can. The few flaws in Daniels’s fiscal record come on taxes. He refused to sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge during his first campaign for governor in 2004. He raised the cigarette tax to help pay for his Healthy Indiana Plan and he partially offset his property tax reductions with a 1 percent increase in the sales tax (it still amounted to a substantial net tax cut). Daniels even contemplated a one-year tax increase on the wealthy to help balance the budget. “It was worse than a crime,” he admits. “It was a mistake.”
But this is a different era, and Daniels argues that reining in spending is as crucial for empowering individuals as paring back tax rates was during the Reagan years. “Barack Obama campaigned on the theme of ‘Change you can believe in,’” he says. “I’d start with ‘Change that believes in you.’ You are a child of God who can make your own decisions.”
Daniels is also the antithesis of Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and putative frontrunner for the 2012 Republican nomination. Romney is famous for telling GOP constituencies what they want to hear. Daniels is gaining a reputation for delivering unwelcome news. He told the Weekly Standard, of all places, that military spending would have to be cut. “When Bush arrived we were spending $300 billion on national defense, and he thought that was plenty,” Daniels said. “Now it’s what, $800 billion?”
When Commentary’s Jennifer Rubin invited Daniels to take a whack at the Obama administration’s fecklessness on foreign policy, the governor praised peace through strength and then promised to “ask questions about the extent of our commitments” overseas. “If we go broke,” Daniels argued, “no one will follow a pauper.” Rubin was disappointed: “It’s not clear whether [Daniels] has thought these issues through, or whether he views foreign policy as anything more than a cost-control issue.”
NOTHING DANIELS HAS SAID has gotten him in more trouble with a Republican voting bloc than his proposed “truce” on hot-button moral issues. The next president, he told the Standard’s Andrew Ferguson, “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We’re going to just have to agree to get along for a little while.” Win the budget battle first, wage the culture war later. Daniels is pro-life and believes marriage is between a man and a woman, but social conservatives were outraged.
At the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., speaker after speaker-all possible Republican primary opponents-not too subtly criticized Daniels’s truce formulation. “Those who would have us ignore the battle being fought over life, marriage, and religious liberty have forgotten the lessons of history,” said Rep. Mike Pence, the fellow Hoosier who chairs the House Republican Conference, in his speech to the Family Research Council-organized gathering. “America’s darkest moments have come when economic arguments trumped moral principles.”
“We must realize there’s a direct correlation between the stability of families and the stability of our economy,” former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who had previously attacked Daniels by name in a fundraising solicitation, said in his address that day. “I’m so tired of people telling me we don’t want to hear about issues of the family.” Former senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) called the separation of fiscal and moral issues “a very dangerous idea,” saying, “It’s not just economics.” Taking aim at both Daniels and Republican Haley Barbour, who was also seen as downplaying social issues, Christian right first lady Phyllis Schlafly declared, “That’s not only wrong, that’s dumb because we need the social conservatives as well as the fiscal conservatives to take those seats in November.”
Pence finished first in the Values Voter Summit presidential straw poll, one of the early tests of social conservative activist support. Huckabee finished second. Politico pronounced Daniels the event’s loser. Speaking to the people in the audience, one found that many knew little about him besides the fact that he was the guy who wanted a truce on social issues while judges impose same-sex marriage and the new health care law paves the way for taxpayer funding of abortion. “I could never vote for someone like that,” says one middle-aged woman who came from Tennessee to attend.
It’s a situation not unlike that faced by Phil Gramm during the 1996 presidential race. Like Daniels, the Republican senator from Texas had been a stalwart social conservative and had compiled a particularly strong pro-life voting record. Gramm took all the right positions in his official platform. But with his background as an economist, he preferred to run as a green-eyeshade government-cutter. When social conservative leaders met with Gramm to try to persuade him to talk about more than money, he demurred.
“I’m not a preacher, I can’t do that,” Gramm was later quoted as saying. “I’m not running for preacher, I’m running for president.” The social conservatives stormed out. James Dobson fumed to reporters that he had entered the meeting planning endorse Gramm for president and now couldn’t vote for him. Gramm’s failure to consolidate economic and social conservatives ended up dooming his presidential campaign, and he ultimately won fewer votes than either Pat Buchanan or Steve Forbes.
GRAMM’S FATE DOES NOT necessarily have to be Daniels’s. Daniels has begun to refine his social issues comments, walking back his early noncommittal response on banning taxpayer funding for groups that promote abortion abroad — he says he’d now back reinstating the Mexico City policy — and clarifying what he meant. “A truce is not a surrender,” said Daniels. “Who are the aggressors here? Gay marriage advocates. Those who divide us on race and gender.” The implication is that Daniels is offering a truce, but only if social liberals honor it too.
But it is clear where Daniels’s priorities lie: fixing the federal government’s balance sheet. “I’m prepared to set aside almost anything else,” he says. Daniels wants to try to get “50 percent plus one” in a national election running as a cost-cutter for whom Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and defense are all on the table. “Damn, these are supposed to be the third rails, impossible,” he continues. “But I’m optimistic it can be done. We need a new compact for young people.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?