Mitch Daniels for President?

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels is superbly qualified for the presidency. But our system virtually assures that he won't be a serious contender for the job.

The Economist has a glowing profile of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, titled “The right stuff” and subheads the question “Indiana’s governor is a likeable wonk. Can he save the Republicans from themselves and provide a pragmatic alternative to Barack Obama?

Most Americans know little or nothing of Mr Daniels. He does not tweet. “I’m not an interesting enough person,” he explains. He is a Republican who had never heard of 9/12, Glenn Beck’s tea-party group, before The Economist mentioned it to him. But he is good at one thing in particular: governing.

Wonks have long revered Mr Daniels. Since February, when he said he would consider a presidential run, others have started to as well. The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, published a glowing profile in June. At Indiana’s Republican convention he was greeted by chants of “Run, Mitch, run!” Mr Daniels is an interesting model. But whether national Republicans will embrace him is less clear.

I don’t know all that much about Daniels and can’t endorse him specifically but my strong preference would be for the Republicans to nominate someone like him in 2012.   He’s in his second term as governor and has an impressive and diverse resume:  he worked for Dick Lugar in the Indiana mayor’s office and followed him to the Senate, was a senior advisor to Ronald Reagan, ran Eli Lily’s North American operations, president of the Hudson Institute, and budget director under George W. Bush.  So, he’s got serious executive experience, real business experience, and knows his way around Washington — a rare combination.

Further, I don’t think any of the 2012 crop — Palin, Mitt Romney, or Mike Huckabee — is likely to be able to oust Obama. Alas, one of those (my early money’s on Romney) will win the nomination. The road for a Daniels type is long and winding:

Unlike Mr Romney or Mrs Palin, he is still running a state. The recession knocked Indiana backwards. Last year Mr Daniels closed a $957m budget gap by using reserves and making cuts, including some for education. But another hole is expected next year, and the next round of cuts will be more painful. Democrats argue that Mr Daniels has oversold his economic record. The unemployment rate is now 10% and the unemployment trust fund is insolvent.

Added to this, Mr Daniels is largely untested on the national stage. On television, he can seem wooden. His record includes contradictions. Though he has been a fiscal hawk in Indiana, during his time at the budget office a national surplus became a deficit. He has derided the federal stimulus but taken its cash—a sign of pragmatism or hypocrisy, depending on the audience.

More problematic, it is unclear that a clever, measured candidate stands a chance within the Republican Party. Neo-cons are allergic to talk of defence cuts. Social conservatives were rabid after Mr Daniels, anti-abortion himself, told the Weekly Standard that he favoured a temporary truce on social issues. “It just happens to be what I think,” he says, arguing that politicians need to unite on urgent matters of national security and debt. He is also unlikely to fire up tea-partiers. “Didn’t somebody say in a different context, ‘Anger is not a strategy’?” he asked your correspondent over a rare plate of steak and chips.

The primary system, which selects the candidate best organized to pander to the most rabid and enthusiastic members of the party’s base, is not conducive to picking the candidate who would be most likely to win a general election, much less the one most fit to govern.   And that’s a shame.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Daniels is an interesting guy. A couple months ago he made headlines for saying in a Weekly Standard interview that there should be a “truce” on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, his reasoning being that it is more important right now for the GOP to stay united on fiscal issues. He got slammed for that statement by guys like Mike Huckabee, but it was much more well-received than I had expected.

    Notwithstanding the picture of him on the motorcycle, he’s not the flashiest guy out there so I’m not sure how he’d come across on the campaign trail. But, you know what ? We could use a level-headed, somewhat boring Mid-Westerner right now. I’ll be keeping an eye on this guy.

  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    Funnily enough I’ve just finished reading the article in my Economist that arrived this morning. Actually Daniel’s name has been floated on and off for years in the WSJ so he’s hardly an unknown. It would be nice to think the GOP was ready to start nominating candidates like him for the presidency but I don’t see it. There’s also the fact the Economist wasn’t exaggeratiing when it said he was somewhat wooden based on a couple of TV appearances a few years back. The guy he most reminds me off is Dick Lugar so it’s perhaps no accident both come from Indiana. Now I’d be very happy to have someone like Lugar as president since he typifies most of what’s best about the traditional Republican party but that’s not where the party is these days.

  3. sam says:

    Yeah, he’s got about as much chance as Chris Christie, which is to say about those of a fart in whirlwind given the base of the GOP.

  4. Robert Bell says:

    “Can he save the Republicans from themselves and provide a pragmatic alternative to Barack Obama”

    I think the Economist is projecting its “classical liberal” orientation of individual liberties and generally market driven economics (they seem to be ok with pragmatic technocratic interventions to fix externalities) and fiscal responsibility. The implicit assumption of the above statement is that the Republican Party is interested in offering, or should be interested in offering, those sorts of things but somehow they are not acting in their own best interest.

    Seems to me that as a first approximation we ought to believe that the policies Republican elected leaders are endorsing and campaigning on represent the views of their constituents. Those appear to me to be quite different than those of the Economist.

  5. Neil Hudelson says:

    Over the past year, I’ve actually commented a few times about a Daniels run. Having lived most of my life in Indiana, I have a pretty good view of the guy. Out of all the names floated for the Republican nomination, he’s the one I think would have the biggest chance of beating Obama. His record is great, and he doesn’t have any skeletons in his closet.

    Strategy wise, he’s a great pick. Indiana became a temporary swing state last election, but would go for him (of course). He has a better chance than Obama at taking Ohio and Pennsylvania. Missouri would more than likely go for him too. I think the election would boil down to who could win Florida.

    That said, he has a snowball’s chance of winning the primary.

  6. says:

    Also a recent Indiana transplant, I wasn’t never that impressed by him. He had a tendency to make deals that looked good up front, but were much less attractive over time (Lucas Oil Stadium and various proposed road privitization schemes off the top of my head.) He also tended to make some shortsighted decisions (one winter I remember his office changing the budget for highway clean up off the mild winter of the previous season to save some money and it turn out to be pretty bad.) Also I had the impression that he never met a corporation he wouldn’t throw money at.

    All that is to say I probably wouldn’t vote for him, but he is a damn sight better than anything in the current Republican field and he at least seems to have principles and the capacity to learn over time. I would respect him as president and I would have respect for Republicans making him their candidate.

  7. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Those appear to me to be quite different than those of the Economist.”

    They are totally different but The Economist affects to believe that there is some connection between their position (socially liberal, fiscally conservative, pragmatic interventionism when needed) and that of the the GOP. In fact the Republican party has totally lost contact with economic reality. I suppose it’s tp preserve the appearance of even handedness. Interestingly in the same issue they concede that Obama has pulled off the auto industry turnaround although they criticised it at the time he did it.

  8. Jason says:

    I’ve been keeping my eye on Daniels for a while now. It’s true as to what was expressed about his “wooden and wonkish” appearance. But in away, it is also refreshing for many. The celebrity president era, shirtless photos and all, is repulsive too many. I appreciate the fact that he isn’t hip on a lot of innocuous issues or a rabid ideologue. Since when do those qualities go out of style.

    We need a manager, a CEO, a leader, and a rough and cut solutions finer. Not a savior or a rock star leading the nation.

  9. Brummagem Joe says:

    “We need a manager, a CEO, a leader, and a rough and cut solutions finer. Not a savior or a rock star leading the nation.”

    Actually a president does need some elements of these in his makeup. And there’s also the fact that Obama deploys at least as much, if not more, more intellectual horsepower than Daniels. The last time we elected a “manager” (remember the HBS qualifications!) he turned out to be one of the worst presidents in our history. And need I mention some of those other huge managerial successes: Don Rumsfeld, Robert McNamara.

  10. Jason says:

    Not to nit-pick, here — but don’t nit-pick..haha.

    My suggestions were just notable attributes to the whole package. Intellectual firepower is an overrated term, monopolized by the left. Not that I am accusing you of being a leftist.

    They use it to make up for the panty-waste demeanor and soft will of their candidates, “don’t worry about the size of his biceps. He’s much smarter and can get to solutions by being smarter than the other guy!”. That, too, has been an epic failure equally disastrous to your examples used against, management, CEO, experience, etc.

  11. An Interested Party says:

    “They use it to make up for the panty-waste demeanor and soft will of their candidates, ‘don’t worry about the size of his biceps. He’s much smarter and can get to solutions by being smarter than the other guy!’.”

    As opposed to the tough guy demeanor and strong will of people like Bush and Rumsfeld…yes, that worked out so very well…