"I've been thinking lately about this slogan that won the last presidential election, 'Change You Can Believe In,'" Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels mused to a group of Washington reporters on Tuesday. "Obviously, it was effective, because they won. But I've been thinking, what the hell does that mean? What was artful about it was that it can mean anything. If I believe in it, it must be what the guy's talking about. So, points for cleverness."
Yet Daniels continued, "If we (Republicans) had a catch phrase of our own, it would be more like, 'Change That Believes In You.' You're a person of dignity. You're a person who was born to be free, and ... if we simply arrange society in a fair way, you're fully capable of deciding how to spend as many of your dollars as we can leave with you, where your kid should go to school, what health care to buy or not buy."
One recurring theme in recent American political history is that presidents who fall out of favor tend to be succeeded by candidates who exhibit opposite attributes. Jimmy Carter was elected in the wake of Watergate as somebody who vowed never to tell a lie, but misery ensued, and Ronald Reagan's sunny optimism carried the day four years later. Obama campaigned as the antidote to the Bush era, and while a lot of Republicans fret that they don't have anybody to match his rock star appeal, that may not be what the public will want in the next election. With lofty rhetoric now being followed up by incompetent governance, by 2012, the electorate may warm up to somebody boring who knows what he's doing. Therein lies the potential appeal of Daniels, a mostly bald, 5'7", Midwestern governor who is the last person one would think of as a contender in the modern media age.
The buzz surrounding Daniels increased this week with the publication of Andrew Ferguson's excellent profile in the Weekly Standard. In the piece, Ferguson recounts how Daniels campaigned for governor driving around the state on a Harley Davidson, sleeping in the homes of Indiana families who he didn't know. During his time as governor, which followed a stint as the Bush administration's director of Office and Management and Budget, Daniels has mixed his populist appeal with successful governance -- slashing spending, reforming education, turning a deficit into a surplus, and outperforming neighboring states economically.
Daniels' desire to protect his family from the national media exposure is seen as a major factor preventing him from seeking the White House. In the 1994, his wife left him and their four children to marry a doctor, Ferguson reported, but three years later she returned to Daniels.
"The second worst experience I could think of would be going through the people shredder of national campaigning," Daniels said of running for president when speaking to reporters at a gathering held at the Heritage Foundation. "The worst thing would be to do that, win, and not be able to make a lot of difference."
He explained, "I want to see the next candidacy on our side be somebody who is campaigning to govern, not to merely win."
Daniels said rather than concentrate on personalities, those who believe the country is heading in the wrong direction have to "really think hard, beyond the slogans and our own catechism, about what is to be done and what can be done."
Repeatedly, Daniels spoke of the nation's fiscal crisis as an emergency that challenges the American experiment itself. He also referred to public sector unions as the "new privileged elite in America" for their lavish benefits and job security.
"The question is, 'what kind of people are we going to be?'" he wonders. "I'm not the great historian or political philosopher, but certainly it's true that from the beginning of this quaint notion of government by the consent of the governed there have been people who have said it will not fly, eventually 51 percent will figure out they can exploit the 49 percent."
When prompted, Daniels criticized Republicans for making attacks on Medicare cuts a centerpiece of their campaign against President Obama's national health care legislation.
"I do not think it was a proud moment for the Republican Party at all," Daniels said. "Medicare is going to have to change. I have to say, the granny card has been played so cynically against Republicans so many times, that I can certainly understand the turnabout there. But it is not a grown-up attitude. We're going to have to have some grown-up conversations. And to pretend that Medicare can continue in its current form is just not honest."
He later added that, "I understand why they leap at the short-term temptation to score a point or two, but it's not really in the national interest."
Daniels referred to the current entitlement spending crisis as "Thelma and Louise" politics, with both parties driving the car over a canyon. "Somebody in that car is going to have to say 'no' and go back and face the consequences."
While he won't win on charisma, Daniels has an opening to run as a grown-up at a time when Washington is desperately in need of adult supervision.
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