Mitch Daniels Says 'I Don't Plan to Do It' In 2012

When he sat down with reporters at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington on Tuesday (February 22nd), Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels came the closest he has so far to ruling out a bid for the Republican nomination for President in 2012.

“I don’t plan to do it, I don’t expect to do it, I really don’t want to do it,” Daniels told my colleagues and me, adding that “there are 100 reasons that no sane person wants to do this.”

But the one-time Reagan White House aide and director of the Office of Management and Budget under George W. Bush never said “I won’t do it.”  Coupled with the fact he devoted much of the breakfast to spelling out an agenda for Republicans in Congress and nationwide, one might agree with the Monitor’s Dave Cook that Daniels (who is termed out in 2012 after eight years in the statehouse) wants to “stay open to the idea” of a presidential run. 

Princeton graduate Daniels is known as a hard-nosed but good-nosed administrator who took a near-bankrupt state in 2004 and made it solvent.  Recalling to reporters how he works with a legislature in which the state House of Representatives is controlled by Democrats, the GOP governor emphasized how “it is very important that Republicans present a comprehensive and inclusive program to the country.”  Like his old boss Bush, he dismissed issues that many politicians consider “third rail” and “unmentionables” such as the reform of Social Security and other entitlements.

“Somebody better try,” he warned, “I don’t concede that we cannot have a grownup conversation [with the American people] about these things.  It’s not awkward or difficult to say ‘why do we we have to pay Bill Gates’ health care?’.” 

“We Need To Throw Away the Rulebook”

One area in which Daniels clearly sounded like a man with a vision was on federal-state relations, (which was his portfolio in the Reagan White House).  Noting that the biggest of red ink in state government was Medicaid (now placing the states more than $300 billion in debt), I pointed out to Daniels that Vermont’s Republican Gov. Jim Douglas (who is chairman of the National Governors Association) had been given a waiver from Washington to deal with the Medicaid problem and had come up with creative alternatives such as making care in the home deductible.  Was that something Daniels supported?

“Sure,” he replied, recalling how he had joined with other governors in requesting from flexibility for the states on Medicaid, “Waivers should be automatic.  The states need to be able to make necessary changes.”

But the Hoosier State governor would not confine flexibility to Medicaid.  As he put it, “I said the same thing to the Secretary of Transportation — we need to throw away the rule book.  There is so much more to building a road even if $1 of federal money is involved.”

States do a better job on just about everything “every time we’re involved without the federal government.  There’s a shorter time frame [without the federal government regulations] and you can do things more broadly.  It’s time to suspend all kinds of rules.”

Daniels’ Formula for Winning

For someone who came close to ruling out a run for the Republican presidential nomination on Tuesday, Daniels certainly had a lot to say about what his party should do in order to return to power in Congress this year and in the White House in 2012.

“I want to see our party campaign to govern, not just to win,” he said.  His formula for a GOP resurgence is twofold:  first, “a program with intellectual credibility,” in which candidates spell out not only what they want to do but how they will execute their agenda “to protect the next generation and second, “to speak to the American people in a tone that’s inviting and friendly.”  By taking a pleasant tone, he feels, voters will listen to Republicans even if they are inclined to disagree with their program.

“And I never ran a negative commercial in my three campaigns [one contested primary, two general elections for governor],” the Hoosier man proudly told reporters.

Although he did not attend the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that was going on at the same time the National Governors Association was meeting, Daniels did say that one of the things that CPAC attendees told him “was there was a real sophistication among the participants [because] they cut [Massachusetts GOP Sen.] Scott Brown a lot of slack. . He’s simply not aligned with a lot of folks on what we’ve come to call the social issues."

But while conservatives didn’t agree with Brown on every issue when he ran in the special election for the Senate last month, they nonetheless worked for his victory because “they agreed it was a good thing,” said Daniels. 

“Now there is no need to back down from important principles,” he added, “but when the time is right, I hope that the voice of the our party is a friendly and unifying one.  People can differ on the solution, but not the problems”– which he defined as out-control spending, dealing with entitlements, and terrorism.

On the latter point, Daniels added his view that people “thin we re not serous about terrorism when we are paying some of the worst people in the world billions to make war on us when we buy their oil.” 

A Touch of Moderation

In large part because of his long association with Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar and the moderate wing of the Republican Party in his state, Daniels has never been fully embraced by conservatives nationally.

So no Daniels watcher was really stunned when the governor said he felt “it’s too bad that our senator [Democrat Evan Bayh] decided not to stay” or that he volunteered "[i]s the second or third or fourth time that I respectfully declined the opportunity to come speak.[to CPAC]. I don’t do much of that sort of thing, as I say I stay in my lane."

However, he also sounded a strong anti-tax line, reminding the reporters that capping property taxes and slashing other taxes put Indiana in the red.  The Obama Administration’s call to let the Bush tax cuts (which then-OMB chief Daniels helped craft) is, in the governor’s words, “a big mistake. . .tax cuts are always right.”  The Bush tax cuts of the last decade, he emphasized, are among “the few fiscal actions that contributed directly to economic recovery,” particularly new revenues that came into government and a smaller deficit.  

But tackling spending will be the greatest challenge for political leaders in the next few years, he believes.

“And I don’t know who it will is” that finally gets federal spending under control, he noted, “but somebody had  better try.”

For all his talk of not running and all but ruling out a run for President, it sounded to most of my colleagues as we left breakfast that Mitch Daniels himself would not mind trying.