Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels does not have the rhetorical flair of President Barack Obama. Nor does he have Obama’s swagger. Everything about Daniels speaks to sobriety, including his modest build and height and his folksy and plain — and a bit bland — Midwestern way of speaking.
But while Daniels decided not to run for the Republican nomination for president this year, his response to Obama’s State of the Union speech last Tuesday offered many lessons for the eventual Republican nominee on how to win a general election by dismantling Obama’s failed policies, remaining conservative, and sounding temperate in doing so.
And his response, again, left many Republicans who are dissatisfied with the current crop of candidates wondering what might have been. Sure, Daniels has his flaws, too. He inexplicably said conservatives should have a “truce” on social issues and spoke favorably of a value-added tax. But his razor-sharp focus on the debt and earnestness may have made him a formidable contender against Obama in a cycle in which every candidate has been deeply flawed.
Before he fiercely criticized Obama, Daniels acknowledged some good things about Obama, which made Daniels seem less hackish, in order to lend his blistering argument even more credibility.
“Republicans tonight salute our President, for instance, for his aggressive pursuit of the murderers of 9/11, and for bravely backing long overdue changes in public education,” Daniels said at the start of his speech. “The President did not cause the economic and fiscal crises that continue in America tonight. But he was elected on a promise to fix them, and he cannot claim that the last three years have made things anything but worse: the percentage of Americans with a job is at the lowest in decades. One in five men of prime working age, and nearly half of all persons under 30, did not go to work today.”
Daniels has compared the nation’s debt to the Soviet threat of the 1980s and the central theme of his speech was framed around that issue.
“In three short years, an unprecedented explosion of spending, with borrowed money, has added trillions to an already unaffordable national debt,” Daniels said. “And yet, the President has put us on a course to make it radically worse in the years ahead. The federal government now spends one of every four dollars in the entire economy; it borrows one of every three dollars it spends. No nation, no entity, large or small, public or private, can thrive, or survive intact, with debts as huge as ours.
Daniels also linked the expansion of government to an increase in the debt but framed this message in a way that framed government as holding back the country from prospering.
“The President’s grand experiment in trickle-down government has held back rather than sped economic recovery,” Daniels said. “He seems to sincerely believe we can build a middle class out of government jobs paid for with borrowed dollars. n fact, it works the other way: a government as big and bossy as this one is maintained on the backs of the middle class, and those who hope to join it.”
Daniels then put a face on the types of people who have been hurt by Obama’s expansion of government – the young and the unemployed.This was effective because these are the same groups that Obama is claiming that more government can help, and Daniels fiercely took the conservative message and fight directly to them.
“Those punished most by the wrong turns of the last three years are those unemployed or underemployed tonight, and those so discouraged that they have abandoned the search for work altogether,” Daniels said. “And no one has been more tragically harmed than the young people of this country, the first generation in memory to face a future less promising than their parents did.”
Often, Republicans can be dour and pessimistic, especially when speaking about fiscal austerity. Daniels was hopeful. He reminded the audience that Republicans, first and foremost, care about upward mobility and prosperity for all Americans. In fact, he called Obama’s big government agenda a “pro-poverty” agenda.
“As Republicans our first concern is for those waiting tonight to begin or resume the climb up life’s ladder,” Daniels said. “We do not accept that ours will ever be a nation of haves and have-nots; we must always be a nation of haves and soon-to-haves.”
But Daniels did not back away from the graveness of the country’s debt crisis even as he was optimistic that conservative solutions were what was needed to solve it.
“So 2012 is a year of true opportunity, maybe our last, to restore an America of hope and upward mobility, and greater equality,” Daniels said. “The only way up for those suffering tonight, and the only way out of the dead end of debt into which we have driven, is a private economy that begins to grow and create jobs, real jobs, at a much faster rate than today.”
Often, when speaking of entitlement reform, Republicans come off as harsh, and Democrats use that perception, unfair as it is, against Republicans. Daniels was clever in framing the debate a different way. He said entitlements needed to be reformed so that the social safety net could be preserved.
“The mortal enemies of Social Security and Medicare are those who, in contempt of the plain arithmetic, continue to mislead Americans that we should change nothing,” Daniels said. “Listening to them much longer will mean that these proud programs implode, and take the American economy with them. It will mean that coming generations are denied the jobs they need in their youth and the protection they deserve in their later years.”
Daniels also framed election 2012 as one about personal freedom. He said “the President and his allies tell us that we just cannot handle ourselves in this complex, perilous world without their benevolent protection. Left to ourselves, we might pick the wrong health insurance, the wrong mortgage, the wrong school for our kids; why, unless they stop us, we might pick the wrong light bulb!”
In the end, this is a winning message against Obama in the general election that was smartly argued. But Daniels is, absent some bizarre circumstances, not going to be delivering it while going toe to toe with him. But, for one night, he reminded many Republicans why they initially thought he should, which is why Republicans would be well-served to learn from his response.