A Further Perspective

Mitch Daniels and the CPAC Moment

Is the Indiana governor running for president?

By 2.14.11

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Is Indiana governor Mitch Daniels running for president? That was one question on the minds of some of the 11,000 people who attended the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend.

Daniels went to the CPAC and gave a terrific one-legged stool presidential campaign address. The minimum number of legs for a stool, however, as many people from the state of Indiana know -- Indiana has 154,000 milking cows -- is three.

Daniels gave a sober, but not somber, 31-minute speech which was interrupted by applause 42 times. Flown in from Indiana on a friend's plane, Daniels was relaxed, poised, Teleprompted, and, yes, presidential, in part because a teleprompter prompts people to think of presidents.

Daniels summed up his economic philosophy early on: "We [Hoosiers] believe in paying our bills. We have kept our state in the black throughout the recent unpleasantness, while cutting rather than raising taxes, by practicing an old tribal ritual -- we spend less money than we take in."

The lefties, if they had been listening, would have been scandalized to hear the governor say, echoing Milton Friedman: "When business leaders ask me what they can do for Indiana, I always reply: 'Make money. Go make money. That's the first act of corporate citizenship. If you do that, you'll have to hire someone else, and you'll have enough profit to help one of those non-profits we're so proud of."

Friedman also pointed out that you can only make money (which the left thinks is greed) by serving people (which the left thinks is the exclusive preserve of government).

Daniels said Indiana had cut property taxes to the lowest level in America, and designed the health plans for both the state employees and for low-income Hoosiers as Health Savings Accounts. And he spoke of Indiana's intention to create a voucher program for every low and middle income family in the state.

Having presented his bona fides, Daniels then addressed the nation's most pressing problem, what he called a new Red Menace: the sea of red ink drowning the U.S. economy.

As the elections of last November indicated, that is now the central concern of Americans: an economy incarnadined by the hand of Barack Obama, the one we had been waiting for. Yet who would have thought the one we had been waiting for to have had so much red ink in him?

Daniels said we need to cut government spending, redesign the tax code so it will promote private growth (flatter is better, flat is best), deregulate, and stop denying ourselves the energy -- oil and gas -- that is under our own land. 

He spoke about Americans "still on the first rung of life's ladder." He urged the audience to "distinguish carefully skepticism about Big Government from contempt for all government."

Then he asked for "thoughtfulness about the rhetoric we deploy in the great debate ahead." And, having thought for just a moment himself, decided time was up: whereupon he announced that "our opponents are better at nastiness than we will ever be. It comes naturally. Power to them is everything, so there's nothing they won't say to get it." How do you speak truth when truth is unpleasant?

Daniels also urged "great care not to drift into a loss of faith in the American people." saying "Americans are still a people born to liberty."

So far, so good, and very good indeed. Thirty-one minutes. Forty-two applause lines. That's a great speech. George Will, introducing Gov. Daniels, said, "Our speaker has twice been the right choice for Indiana. Some people think that the other 49 states deserve the chance to make the same choice."

But other people aren't so sure. Two legs of the stool were missing: social policy and national security policy.

Gov. Daniels said last year, as reported by Andrew Ferguson in the Weekly Standard that to solve the economic problems, "the next president would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues."

That may make sense, at first: if the country goes broke, a lot of things will have to change. Perhaps the country will have to economize by laying off the Supreme Court.

But even assuming solving the economic problem must come first, how are we going to avoid rafting on Barack Obama's great rolling river of red-ink all the way to bankruptcy on the rocks of entitlement programs?

Daniels said that Americans "are still a people born for self-governance. They are ready to summon the discipline to… put the future before the present, their children's interest before their own." Fine, but putting children's interest before their own -- even getting married and having children -- takes character. And the kind of people who have that kind of character tend to be social conservatives.

The governor's gamble may be that social conservatives know he is one of them; and they may understand that he doesn't want to scare off those people who are concerned about the economy but are not social conservatives. Perhaps.

The other missing stool was national security -- foreign policy and defense. The governor's only reference to national security was to say that even national defense, which he called "the first and most important mission of government," could not get a free pass when it came to cutting the budget.

The same day the governor spoke, the Egyptian government, our ally for decades, had fallen, casting the whole Middle East into confusion at best, chaos at worst.

Now the cons and the neocons, and the realists and the idealists, and the State Department long-timers and the Freedom Agenda proponents are all arguing about what we should have done, and what we should do.

A reasonable position for Gov. Daniels would have been to cut through that fog of argument and call for increasing the defense budget. Another position would have been to call for not cutting it, and notwithstanding that the Pentagon's balance sheet is as unyielding of useful data as a black hole.

Daniels understands that we cannot balance the budget by eliminating fraud, waste, and abuse. But neither can we wait around for the Defense Department to produce a clean balance sheet before buying the defense we need.

Hoosiers are not much affected by illegal immigration, nor is Indiana involved in national security. Hoosiers also know their state government can't determine national abortion policy.  Nor can Indiana do much to affect today's culture, which drives so many of the social issues. It may be possible therefore to avoid discussing social issues when running for governor of Indiana.  But not for president of the United States.

Because Gov. Daniels avoided both the social issues and the national security issue at CPAC, many observers thought it fair to conclude from his speech -- a very good speech indeed -- that he is not running for president. Or, at least, not running for president yet.

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About the Author

Daniel Oliver is a Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. He served as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan.