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Cut Along with Mitch

A campaign autobiography without a campaign.

By 9.28.11

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Bored with the actual Republican presidential field, pundits have spent the last few weeks dreaming up new candidates. Rick Perry was in hot demand, until he actually got in and failed to display the eloquence of Churchill. Now it is on to Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, and countless others who are likely to remain interesting only insofar as they stay out of the race.

Mitch Daniels is one who stayed out. The two-term governor of Indiana was Ronald Reagan's political director, George W. Bush's budget director, a senior executive at Eli Lilly, and the head of the Hudson Institute, among other things. More recently, he's been showing us what might have been, hitting the talk show circuit and promoting the kind of book a presidential candidate would write.

Keeping the Republic: Saving America by Trusting Americans is unusual precisely because it is a campaign autobiography without a campaign. Before even the table of contents, the book lists nine tributes to what a good president Daniels would be. Nowhere, however, does the volume suggest he is willing to do the kinds of things that get people elected president in our media age.

Almost immediately, we are confronted with the paradox of Daniels. In his chapter on the national debt (characteristically dubbed the new "Red Menace"), he repeats Perry's argument that Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie." Except Daniels doesn't attract the same establishment scorn because he doesn't use those exact words.

"For seventy years," Daniels writes, "Americans were misled to believe that they had been putting aside money for their own retirement, that there were actual assets being held somewhere that would provide for them in their Golden Years." Daniels continues, "The system worked for years because there were far more workers than retirees." The ratio is declining to a point that threatens Social Security's solvency. Ponzi scheme, anyone?

"The most nakedly political of Social Security's design flaws is that every American collects from it, no matter how wealthy they are or how little they need retirement help," writes Daniels. The only reason for this "absurdity," he claims, is "the cold calculation that putting everyone in the system would protect it politically over the years." This calculation and the IOUs in the trust fund are the monstrous lies.

This is very typical of Daniels. He has a way of achieving conservative results while making liberals feel like they have in some sense won. This formula worked very well for him in Indiana, but the flip side came back to haunt him when he contemplated a Republican presidential bid: when liberals feel like they have won, conservatives tend to feel like they lost.

Consider that when Daniels became governor, he went further in revoking the public sector employees' collective bargaining power than Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (by executive order, no less). Yet he did not experience a comparable backlash from Democrats and unions. But when Daniels decided later in his administration to work with Democrats in the state legislature rather than promote a right-to-work law for which he didn't have the votes, the consensus in conservative circles was that Daniels was a wuss compared to Walker.

On his book tour, Daniels has stepped into one of these controversies again. He told an interviewer that, unlike the Republican presidential candidates at a recent debate, if he could get a real grand bargain on the federal budget that included $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases, he would take it. Most Republicans on that stage would take it too, but none would ever say it. The past 30 years are full of examples of Republicans taking worse deals in which there were real tax increases and imaginary spending cuts.

That's not to say that conservative qualms about Daniels are entirely unwarranted. For example, he doesn't see what the fuss is about the cigarette tax increase he used to pay for his Indiana health care reforms.

"I referred those Republicans who treat any tax, anytime, for any purpose as a hersey to the words of my former boss Ronald Reagan, who said, ‘If you want more of something tax it less; less of something tax it more,'" he writes. "I wanted less smoking in Indiana, and would be curious to hear the contrary case."

The case for individual freedom, perhaps?

Daniels undertakes to explain his social issues "truce" comment, which he describes as an "innocent, modest, and offhand suggestion in an interview in mid-2010." He professes to not have been talking solely about social issues when saying that Americans will have to put some differences aside to tackle the Red Menace. He emphasizes his record opposing abortion and supporting traditional marriage, especially instituting pro-life policies in Indiana.

It's the paradox of Daniels again: his effort to disarm social liberals who might be open to fiscal conservatism served mainly to inflame social conservatives, with whom he substantially agrees even if he does not share (or even seem to completely understand) their level of commitment.

On immigration, Daniels has something to offend everyone. He suggests increased legal immigration levels, even though we are already taking in more than 1 million new immigrants a year while millions of Americans remain stubbornly unemployed. But if he is serious when he writes "we need to admit many more immigrants who create the most jobs and economic value" rather than "those who merely happen to live next door or who are related to those who are already here," we would have to reduce the kind of immigration we are currently getting.

Chris Christie and Paul Ryan are both Daniels fans. But there is a reason many of the commentators and bloggers begging Christie and Ryan to run aren't similarly enthused about Daniels. That reason is foreign policy. This book does nothing to make them feel better.

Daniels is not Ron Paul. He describes the United States' "dominant military" as a "blessing to the world." He agrees with Colin Powell that "we have liberated lands far from us, and come to the aid of tyrants' victims" all "without asking for more land than it took to bury our dead."

But when "we are borrowing the entire defense budget two times over," Daniels writes that some basic questions must be asked: "What size and kind of military is absolutely essential to preserve the physical safety of Americans? What, very strictly defined, are the national interests of our country? Our country." (Emphasis his.)

"The answer," Daniels continues, "may or may not encompass the mission to which presidents of both parties have at various times committed us, to attempt to spread universally the human rights we hold dear." He concludes: "We can stipulate to the nobility and correctness of a century of crusading without necessarily agreeing that this policy is right for America's third century." The task of "protecting Americans for a lot cheaper cannot happen just by better procurement or a couple fewer weapons systems."

Mitch Daniels can say these things because he isn't running for president. But maybe there's an extra seat on the super committee?

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.