Is America ready for a president who will cut spending? Our November cover story.
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The voters will get it if politicians are honest with them, Daniels insists. “People know these things,” he argues. “It’s crazy to send Warren Buffet a pension check.” But one thing is certain: “We’ll never know unless someone tries.” Will Daniels try? “I sure hope so,” says Weaver.
With his focus on austerity, Daniels doesn’t talk like a presidential candidate. The next challenge is whether he looks enough like one. He is 5’7 and balding. He is affable but not exactly larger than life. Ferguson, who described Daniels as having “sunk into a black hole of personal magnetism and come out the other side, where the very lack of charisma becomes charismatic,” paints the following picture of the 2012 presidential contest: “I see [Daniels] as he strides toward the middle of the stage to shake hands with Obama before the first debate and comes up to the president’s navel. Election over.”
Such descriptions astonish and confuse Daniels’s fans. “I don’t get why all these magazine profiles keep saying he’s not charismatic,” says one current aide. “Have they ever actually talked to him?” Rateike begins to guffaw just thinking about the governor. “He’s one of the funniest guys I know,” he says. “You may not believe me, but he has really got a lot of charisma.” They all point to Daniels’s common touch, his preference for sleeping on voters’ couches rather than in fancy hotels, his love of Butler basketball and Harley Davidson motorcycles, his starring role on the YouTube phenomenon “MitchTV.”
MIKE WEAVER REMEMBERS the exact moment he was sold on Mitch Daniels. He sent the governor an e-mail telling him he needed to break the stalemate with the Democratic majority in the state house of representatives to get anything more done. That means the Republicans needed to retake the house. For that to happen, Weaver told the governor, Daniels needed to be involved.
“At 8:43 on a Saturday morning, six minutes later, I got an e-mail back,” says Weaver. “I later told my employees that they hardly ever get back to me within six minutes.” As it happens, Daniels took Weaver’s advice. He went out and recruited promising Republican candidates for the state legislature. The GOP now stands a decent chance of retaking the lower house and thwarting Daniels’s Democratic nemesis Pat Bauer, the house Speaker who was first elected in the 1970s and bears a passing resemblance to the Dukes of Hazzard character Boss Hogg.
In Indiana, at least, Daniels has managed to appeal to a large number of people. After a tough race in 2004, he was reelected four years later by an 18-point margin even as Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since 1964. Daniels won young voters and carried 20 percent of the black vote, both groups where Republicans fared abysmally across the country that year. Daniels’s approval rating is usually more than 60 percent and has reached as high as 70 percent.
“Would his appeal translate well with the national press? I don’t know,” Rateike admits. “But I think people are ready for substance.” This is an especially common sentiment among Republicans who are tired of inarticulate presidential candidates — George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain — and want someone who can explain what they believe and why. Daniels is seen as someone engaged with policy details who can go beyond trite Obama-bashing and deliver a critique of federal spending that isn’t limited to wisecracks about earmarks.
“If government spending prevented pain, we wouldn’t have pain,” Daniels says. “Obama’s budget leads to disaster.” According to him, the question is whether we are ready to do something about it. If Daniels runs for president, he will be asking the American people to do something they have seldom if ever done since Calvin Coolidge: elect a frugal candidate who combines government-cutting with a good-government ethic and doesn’t look like a commander in chief straight out of central casting.
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