Any day now, the race for White House will begin in earnest. If the appearance of national TV ads signifies the beginning of a presidential race, this weekend's unapproved Pro Bowl spot for Mitch Daniels marks the unofficial starting line for the 2012 marathon to the White House.
It's time to begin scrutinizing the likely candidates one by one, starting with Mitch. In a thumbnail sketch here's what you want to know...
Mitch is a diminutive, balding, ex-pothead Hoosier with Syrian roots, currently serving as a wildly popular governor in Indiana. As a motorcycle enthusiast who is known for crisscrossing the state on his iconic Harley, Mitch has broad-based appeal, even among Indiana's youngest voting demographic.
Through impressive accomplishments as Indiana's hard-working chief executive, Mitch has earned a reputation as a reliable fiscal hawk, even as he reportedly eschews the "conservative" label. On the other hand, through his support for a VAT, and through dubious comments about social conservatism, Mitch has spooked many of the conservatives on whom he would depend for a successful GOP primary campaign.
Moreover, Daniels' deep "establishment Republican" roots, his connections with special interests and his cozy relationship with Democrat James Zogby's Arab American Institute will likely disenchant some tea party groups and other influential conservative organizations.
Now the details...
First, a generous slathering praise via Michael Barone:
- In 2008, Mitch was reelected Governor of Indiana, receiving more votes than anyone who has ever run for office in Indiana.
- Mitch received 24% of the Dem vote in '08, up 11% from 2004.
- He received 20% of the African American vote, up 13% from '04.
- Mitch won every age demographic, including the 18-29 year-olds.
- The governor did as well with independents as he did with the general population, winning the independent vote by a 57%-39% margin.
Daniels' everyman appeal:
Daniels kept it real. He has remained in touch and accessible to average Hoosiers through constant statewide travel. His view is always from the taxpayer's perspective and that showed on Election Day. Voters came to appreciate his preference to travel the state on his Harley Davidson motorcycle and his insistence to stay overnight in Hoosier homes, not in hotels. It's no coincidence Daniels did not use campaign consultants, and personally wrote the scripts for all campaign commercials.
Another Daniels fan explains Daniels' impressive electoral success:
Daniels was re-elected to the governor’s mansion in 2008 by a wide margin even as his state went blue. Voters rewarded him for having eliminated in four short years a $200 million hole in Indiana’s budget...Among his most popular (and typical) accomplishments was to overhaul Indiana’s dysfunctional bureau of motor vehicles – reducing average wait times significantly and raising customer satisfaction to 97%. He is a self-described cheap-skate whose healthy aversion to waste underscores his every move and has rewarded him throughout his career...
Daniels' fiscal accomplishments are quite impressive:
After five years in the statehouse, admirers point out, Daniels has managed to lower property taxes by an average of 30 percent; transform a $200 million budget deficit into a $1.3 billion surplus; and insure 45,000 low-income Hoosiers through a budget-neutral combination of health savings accounts and catastrophic coverage. His approval ratings routinely top 65 percent.
Now some criticism, via our center-left friends at Politico:
Daniels recited from Kahn’s book: “It would be most useful to redesign the tax system to discourage consumption and encourage savings and investment. One obvious possibility is a value added tax and flat income tax, with the only exception being a lower standard deduction.”“That might suit our current situation pretty well,” said Daniels, who served as George W. Bush’s Office of Management and Budget director and was a senior adviser in Ronald Reagan’s White House...The so-called VAT, common in European economies which have stagnated, is a toxic acronym to fiscally conservative activists like Grover Norquist and Dick Armey. It slaps a tax on the estimated market value for products at every stage of production.
Immediately after Politico stirred the hornet's nest, the hornets came out!
“This is outside the bounds of acceptable modern Republican thought, and it is only the zone of extremely left-wing Democrats who publicly talk about those things because all Democrats pretending to be moderates wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot poll,” Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist told POLITICO. “Absent some explanation, such as large quantities of crystal meth, this is disqualifying. This is beyond the pale.”
Speaking of drug use:
While in college in 1970, Daniels was arrested for marijuana possession and spent two nights in jail. Daniels always disclosed that fact on job applications and was forthcoming about it in his public career, writing about the incident in a 1989 column published in The Indianapolis Star.
Democrats' efforts to capitalize on this snippet of Daniels' biography were described as "the great Marijuana Flop of 2004."
More important to Daniels' potential political aspirations is his relationship with social conservatives. When given the opportunity to ingratiate himself to social conservatives with a fiscally responsible position, Daniels failed utterly:
Daniels, speaking to reporters in Washington last week, said he wanted to declare a “truce” on social issues with the left. Daniels wants to focus on fiscal issues in Washington. However, in so doing, Daniels is signaling he is not so much of a principled fiscal conservative as he is a technocratic policy wonk.When asked if he would reinstate the “Mexico City Policy,” which Ronald Reagan put in place to ban federal funding of abortions overseas, Daniels responded “I don’t know.”
If rendering opinions on abortion are above Daniel's pay grade, it's not because he hasn't had an opportunity to hone his communication skills. Daniels' résumé is golden:
Career History: Director, Office of Management and Budget, Bush Administration, (2001-2003); Senior Vice President, Eli Lilly and Company, (1990-2001); CEO, The Hudson Institute, (1987-1990); Served as director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee under Dick Lugar in 1983-84. In the second Reagan Administration, he was political director and head of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs but quit after clashes with Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan.Education: Georgetown law school, '79; B.A., Princeton, '71; J.D.
Lately though, Daniels' has impressed all the wrong people. Lefty writers at the Washington Post, Politico, Newsweek ― all smitten. The conspicuous backhanded infatuation with Mitch Daniels is highly suspect and strangely reminiscent of the love fest enjoyed by John McCain, circa 2007.
While Daniels certainly has the right credentials to make a serious run for the White House, it remains to be seen whether his establishment pedigree would serve as an asset or a liability in the Tea Party era. Daniels would do well to show grassroots conservatives that his values are more in line with those of Ronald Reagan than with those of his good friend of four decades, Liberal Republican Dick Lugar.
There are other portions of Daniels' résumé that Daniels may need to downplay if he runs for the GOP nomination. From his history with Eli Lilly, an Indiana-based pharmaceutical company that rallied in support of Obamacare to his warm relationship with Democrat James Zogby's Arab American Institute, Daniels would have much to explain to GOP primary voters. Any lingering reluctance to identify himself as a conservative would be especially problematic.
Last, but possibly not least, there's the matter of Daniels' diminutive and unpresidential physical appearance. This is from our socialist buddies at Newsweek:
At 5 feet 7 (in boots), Daniels is shorter than Obama’s 12-year-old daughter, Malia. His rather uninspiring demeanor—reticent, stiff, and slightly skittish, with darting eyes and long blanks between words—better suits a former director of the Office of Management and Budget, which he happens to be, than a leader of the free world. And his comb-over is borderline delusional. As conservative journalist Andrew Ferguson recently put it, “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.”
Are we getting ahead of ourselves? Jennifer Rubin reminds us that at this point, perhaps the most important question to ask about Mitch Daniels is whether he's serious about running.
Next in the series: Herman Cain, Pros and Cons