Politics has its moments, and right now Mitch Daniels is having his.
Daniels is a former top executive at Eli Lilly and Co., a one-time director of the federal Office of Management and Budget, the current governor of Indiana and a possible Republican candidate for president. He is having a good winter, in the way some decorated British heroes between 1939 and 1945 had a good war that prepared them for a fast track in politics and business.
Nobody, including Daniels, knows whether he actually is going to run for president and nobody, especially Daniels, knows whether he will be a sensation or a dud if he decides to do so. Some politicians hear the siren song only to discover that it’s not playing their tune (you can ask President Pete Wilson or President Fred Thompson). Some politicians heed the call and find that presidential politics is truly their calling (the best recent example is President Ronald Reagan, though his first two tries were debacles).
But right now a lot of smart people think that Daniels — a cost-cutter who seems to have the vision of an actuary grafted onto the character of a biker — is the man to take on Barack Obama, the mountain of federal debt, the looming Social Security and Medicare crises, and just about everything short of a potential NFL labor impasse, which, by the way, would be a disaster for Indiana, its Colts being an engine of the state economy.
The other day the cerebral David Brooks of The New York Times called Daniels “the man who would be the (Republican) party’s strongest candidate for the presidency” and lamented that he might not run. This sort of thing brings to mind the way Republicans (and some Democrats) longed for Dwight Eisenhower to join the presidential ticket in 1952.
The question for any politician is how to make the best use of his moment.
Rep. Richard Gephardt, the Missouri Democrat, made his own moment in 1987 when he intruded on the serenity of the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day with a barrage of effective television ads about the threat of foreign imports. He rode that to a victory in the Iowa caucuses in early 1988.
But Gephardt’s moment came on the eve of actual caucusing. Daniels’ moment comes on the eve of, well, the Big East men’s basketball tournament in New York, not ordinarily known as an important milestone on the way to the White House.
So what’s a governor of Indiana to do?
Daniels has already told the big annual convention of conservatives that nothing matters so much as the deficit and entitlements. And he’s already told Republicans they’ve gone too far with the cultural wars on social issues — which means he’s already had yet another kind of moment, a Sister Souljah moment, long before many people have started to pay attention.
A Sister Souljah moment? That’s when a politician tells his best friends, or potential supporters, to buzz off and quiet down. It derives from Gov. Bill Clinton’s (altogether calculated but nonetheless brilliant) 1992 repudiation of the hip-hop artist who suggested killing white people. Daniels also used his SS moment to signal that he was a centrist, not an extremist.
The man may have views congenial to the NRA, but he has the soul of a CPA. His radio isn’t constantly tuned to conservative talk radio and Rush Limbaugh’s fellow travelers.
More than the Democratic Party, the Republican Party is a constantly changing organism, with a constantly shifting profile.
Maybe Daniels, whose greatest asset is that he is normal, is what the Republicans need.
Meanwhile, President Obama is channeling Harry Truman, who lost both houses of Congress in 1946 and then checked in with a 36 percent approval rating the spring before the 1948 election. Obama’s record is actually better than that at the moment; he lost only one house of Congress, and his approval rating in the RealClearPolitics running average checks in at just above 49 percent. Compared to Truman, Obama is a giant.
A giant — but one with giant problems. Some are overseas (the Middle East is remaking itself) and some are in his own administration (the Middle East is remaking itself with America largely on the sidelines). Most are in the counting house (the economy is a mess and is only going to get worse unless the debt and social-welfare entitlements are brought under control).
As a potential Obama opponent, Daniels is a zealot but not possessed of a martyr’s death wish. With rebellions against public-employee unions raging in Wisconsin and Ohio, Daniels urged Republican lawmakers to back away from a right-to-work bill for Indiana. He wasn’t amused that Democratic legislators, ripping a page from the Wisconsin playbook, decamped to Illinois, but he had bigger issues in mind. That is very Daniels; he knows how to look beyond the spectacle and the tactics to see the bigger picture and fashion a strategy. Obama mastered that on the campaign stump, but not at the White House podium.
Only twice since 1936 has Daniels’ state sent its electoral votes to the Democrats. The first time was in the 1964 Lyndon Johnson landslide. The other time was in Obama’s 2008 triumph — and then by only one percentage point. Indiana is no swing state, except perhaps now. It has contributed only one president, Benjamin Harrison. Is this Daniels boomlet a real moment — or a momentary mood? Much depends on the answer.
— David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.