If Mitch Daniels hopes to bridge his rift with social conservatives leading into a potential bid for the Republican presidential nomination, he's off to a lousy start. Last week, the Indiana Governor suggested Condoleezza Rice, an abortion-access supporter, as a possible running mate, yet again spitting in pro-lifers' collective eyes, if ever so politely.
Whether Daniels was serious or not, the remark was another unforced error in his long string of unforced errors on cultural policy. Ironically, the development came shortly before Daniels' presidential prospects brightened: of less importance, Donald Trump withdrew from the race; of significant importance, Mike Huckabee said he wouldn't enter.
Even more, Newt Gingrich botched his own bid by criticizing the Ryan Plan and suggesting support for an individual mandate -- not an insurmountable wound, but a deep one nonetheless. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney continues to walk a health-care reform tightrope that could prove his undoing.
But if Daniels doesn't change course fast, his flubs on social issues could be just as disastrous politically as Romney's health-care albatross. That's particularly the case in the Iowa caucuses and South Carolina primary, both of which are bastions of socially conservative Republican voters. In a head-to-head match with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty or Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, both of whom have clean records on cultural issues, Daniels would be a non-starter.
Making his Condi remark even more inexplicably, Daniels was the lynchpin of a recent pro-life victory in Indiana. He signed a bill pulling back millions in state funds for Planned Parenthood, the nation's leading abortion provider, and banning abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. The Planned Parenthood de-funding was an ideal allegiance of fiscal and social conservatism, and propelled Indiana to vanguard status in the pro-life movement.
So why -- oh why -- did Daniels have to go and make another blunder? If his aim was to telegraph that he's serious about foreign policy -- a worthy goal, though not necessarily accomplished by that pick -- why not choose a respected figure who isn't a dead weight on social policy? Daniels reads the newspaper. He knows that conservatives question his reliability on abortion. Why even mention Condi?
With GOP powerbrokers courting Daniels to enter the race, he could become the anti-Romney. That would be interesting, because in many ways Daniels' dilemma is the opposite of what Romney faces. The former Massachusetts governor created a "light" version of Obamacare. Now, he's trying to justify that leftward tilt.
In contrast, Daniels hasn't been all that bad on protecting the sanctity of unborn human life. He isn't a pro-life champion, but he hasn't pussyfooted around the issue like a liberal Republican, and his recent support for pro-life legislation gives him more credibility. With Romney, his record gets in the way of his rhetoric. With Daniels, his rhetoric gets in the way of his record.
That's a shame, because Daniels is nine yards close to being a solid conservative contender on domestic policy -- both financial and cultural -- but he can't seem to crawl that final yard.
Maybe he doesn't want to. Maybe he lacks the discipline or wisdom to at least nuance certain issues. Whatever the answer, he won't survive the primary fight if he doesn't shift course. And at this point, walking back his statements isn't enough. He needs to make the case why the GOP's pro-life base should pick him over the other options. So far, he hasn't tried.