Mitch Daniels Gets The Worst Job In Politics

Mitch Daniels got the unenviable task of responding to the State Of The Union Address last night.

As Bobby Jindal could tell you, being assigned the task of providing the opposition response to the State Of The Union Address tends to be the most thankless, and potentially most disastrous, job in politics. At best, you are just some man or woman standing in front of a camera somewhere who gets to speak to a television audience that just spent an hour or more watching the President of the United States speak in the chamber of the House of Representatives that includes all of Congress, the Supreme Court, the military leadership, the Cabinet, and foreign dignitaries. In the best of all possible worlds, even the best speech of your life is going to come across as a huge emotional letdown from the spectacle just presented to the nation. At worst, you end up like Jindal, compared to Kenneth from 30 Rock for a year because of what really was an uncomfortable performance filled with silly lines about volcano research. This year, the thankless task went to a man that many Republicans still wish had run for President, Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana who is in the final year of a successful eight years in office:

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels delivered a pointed and pugnacious response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, in a speech likely to amplify the drumbeat of voices urging Daniels to wage a late presidential bid.

The term-limited Daniels, who ruled out a White House run last year, slammed Obama for promoting “pro-poverty” extremism and leading a “constant effort to divide us.”

A former budget director under George W. Bush, Daniels was chosen by Republican leaders as a respected and serious voice who could credibly position the party as the champion of business.

“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.”

Daniels also assailed the president for halting the Keystone XL pipeline project that would transport oil from Canada to Texas, equating the move to a “pro-poverty policy” — a line reminiscent of Newt Gingrich’s accusations on the campaign trail that Obama is the “food stamp president”

“The extremism that stifles the development of homegrown energy, or cancels a perfectly safe pipeline that would employ tens of thousands, or jacks up consumer utility bills for no improvement in either human health or world temperature, is a pro-poverty policy,” Daniels said, calling for a “passionate pro-growth approach.”

His delivery was rigid and subdued, but the language was notably charged — especially for Daniels, who is widely respected for his even-tempered and pragmatic nature.

But the Republican appeared to channel some of the anger and energy that’s fueling his party as it works its way through a chaotic nominating process to pick a candidate to oppose Obama.

While the president chided those who believe “America is in decline” in his speech, Daniels painted a much darker picture of the country.

“On these evenings, presidents naturally seek to find the sunny side of our national condition. But when President Obama claims that the state of our union is anything but grave, he must know in his heart that this is not true,” he said.

The tone of Daniels’ speech surprised me, actually. Following a speech which the President ended by talking about the greatness of America being the fact that we “have each others backs” and that there’s nothing we can’t do if we’re united together in a common purpose, a response that follows by saying that the state of the nation is “grave” is politically risky at best. As I’ve noted before, Ronald Reagan succeeded in 1980 not because he constantly talked about how bad things were back then, although he certainly did remind Americans of that, but by reminding Americans of his vision of America as “the shining city on the hill.” Positive always cells better than negative, even when times are bad, and I’m not sure that’s its wise for Republicans to keep pushing the idea that “Yea things are really crappy right now, you know.”

The tone was also surprising because it’s different than what we’ve heard from Daniels in the past. He’s gotten the reputation over the past year of being very blunt when it comes to the fiscal issues facing the country, but he’s never had the reputation of being a doom-and-gloom guy. Granted, these response speeches are typically written by speechwriters and consultants from Congressional Republicans and the RNC, so once Daniels was assigned and accepted the task he sort of had to go along with the message the party wanted to put out in response to the President. Nevertheless, I’m not sure it came across the way that they intended it to, to the extent that anyone event noticed it.

At the same time though, and as Jennifer Rubin notes, Daniels did raise important issues in his response:

As a governor of the opposition party, he was, by necessity, rather general in his policy proposals. But the basic outlines of the GOP agenda were there.

His toughest language was reserved for the president’s failure to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline: “The extremism that stifles the development of homegrown energy, or cancels a perfectly safe pipeline that would employ tens of thousands, or jacks up consumer utility bills for no improvement in either human health or world temperature, is a pro-poverty policy. It must be replaced by a passionate pro-growth approach that breaks all ties and calls all close ones in favor of private-sector jobs that restore opportunity for all and generate the public revenues to pay our bills.”

On tax policy he urged that rates be lowered and loopholes eliminated. On entitlements he chastised the defenders of the status quo. (“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.”) The details will have to be supplied by Congress and/or the presidential contender.

He indicted the president’s divisive rhetoric (“No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favor with some Americans by castigating others”) and deplored policies that promote dependency.

All of these were good points that Daniels brought up, but Rubin makes another point that I think puts the final nail in all of the “Draft Daniels” arguments:

Daniels is poised and serious, but his speech lacked the soaring themes that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) sounded last year. His tone nevertheless should serve as a model for less sober conservatives. He was business-like, avoiding personal slams at the president and urging Republicans to be the mature, positive voices for growth and fiscal sobriety.

Those who have regretted Daniels decision not to seek the Republican nomination this year have often repeated the idea that, had he run, he would now be the one leading the field, not Gingrich or Romney. I’m not so sure. If this cycle has shown us one thing, it is that “sober conservatism” is not what the Republican base is looking for. If they were, then Jon Huntsman would have been far more successful than he turned out to be. Instead, as the rise of every “not Romney” from Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry to Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich has shown us, they are looking for bombast and bomb throwing, for the candidate who will “fight” with Obama, not the candidate who will present conservative policy alternatives in a rational manner, take the President to task for his bad decision making without demonizing him, and realize that winning in politics means doing more than throwing red meat into the debate audience. Just like Hunstman and Tim Pawlenty failed to catch fire with this base because they didn’t play that game, I now think that Daniels would have run into the same problem. Moreover, last night’s speech revealed that, to put it bluntly, Daniels is not necessarily the kind of fiery speaker that riles up a crowd, another skill which seems to be more important to voters this year than actual substance. As I noted on Twitter last night, Daniels is sadly too rational to be successful in the Republican race for President this year.

Given recent history, I’m not even sure why the opposition party wastes the time to try to respond to a State of the Union Address. As I noted above, it’s never going to be able to match the authority projected by the President’s speech, and it risks harming the political career of a promising prospect like Jindal. In Daniels case, I don’t think there will be any harm suffered but I don’t think it necessarily helped him all that much either. He will be leaving office at the end of this year, and unless he ends up taking a Cabinet position in a Republican Administration, he’s likely to mostly disappear from the national political scene after that. Judging from the way he made his decision not to run for President, I don’t get the impression that the prospect of this bothers him all that much, to be honest. Whether he returns in 2016 to make a run for the White House if the President is re-elected is something we’ll have to wait and see, but I’m guessing it’s not very likely.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    A small point, but I’ve been noticing for the last several years that my conservative Republican friends and associates have become a lot more class consciuous than they used to be. I didn’t used to hear so much “makers and takers”, “dependency”, blame the victim rhetoric from them as I do lately. It’s an article of faith with them that poor people buying McMansions caused the crisis and recession. They all feel that as job creators (it is to laugh) they deserve ever more tax cuts.

    Just maybe Obama isn’t inciting division and class war. Maybe we’re all becoming willing to talk about a class war that’s been going on for decades.

    And in passing, if you believe the world is divided into “makers and takers”, how is Mitt Romney not the champion taker?

  2. john personna says:

    The “pro-poverty” thing was the wrong kind of soundbite.

  3. Brummagem Joe says:

    Without getting into arguments about some of the statements he made, it was competently delivered but pretty pessimistic. An effect that was added to by Daniel’s own rather eyeshade personality. Where some Republicans get the idea that this guy is a potential white knight against Obama is a total mystery to me but it’s any port in a storm I guess. To be fair as Doug observes giving this speech is the equivalent of cleaning up after the cavalry have ridden by so Daniels deserves some sympathy. That said apart from some adoring plaudits in the usual venues it’s hard to believe it’s impact will be either sizeable or prolonged.

  4. Tillman says:

    Given recent history, I’m not even sure why the opposition party wastes the time to try to respond to a State of the Union Address. As I noted above, it’s never going to be able to match the authority projected by the President’s speech, and it risks harming the political career of a promising prospect like Jindal.

    Well, given the amount of partisan reality divide we see today in the media with talk radio and the omnipresent Fox News, it’s only natural there are competing speeches. Only one of them is right in the end for those whose politics is Manichean in structure.

  5. sam says:

    “No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favor with some Americans by castigating others”

    Anybody else tired of this bullshit? This from a guy’s whose party constantly, effing constantly, accuses the president — and by direct implication, anyone who supports him — of being unAmerican, socialist, cryptoEuropean, and on, and on, and on. Asshat.

  6. reid says:

    I’m pretty sure I heard Pawlenty try to play that “red meat” game, he was just too boring.

  7. Tano says:

    They should think about having the opposition party give the speech a day later. Very few people pay attention to it now, because everyone is still buzzing (one way or the other) about the SOTU. Heck, you barely have time to take a bathroom break before the oppo speech begins. Even those who are interested in hearing the speech probably do not want to hear it just then. Give it a day or so for people to assimilate the SOTU, then give the oppo speech as a stand alone a day or two later.

    That said, it still will be a pretty thankless assignment…

  8. sam says:

    Evidently Mitch ain’t been listening to his compadres:

    Matthew Jaffee reports on Newt Gingrich’s Univision interview, with birthed a brand new Gingrich attack line. This, in itself, is unsurprising. Gingrich can come up with four new attacks in the time it takes me to shamble across the street and buy coffee. But this one, a response to Romney’s “self-deportation” dodge on immigration, is something special.

    I think you have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatic — you know, $20 million a year of no work — to have a fantasy this far from reality. For Romney to believe that somebody’s grandmother is going to be so cut off that she is going to self deport. I mean, this is an Obama-level fantasy.

    In a vacuum, this would be interesting enough. It’s not coming in a vacuum. Gingrich has spent two weeks attacking Mitt Romney’s career as a public equity captain and a co-founder of Bain Capital. He’s dropping the subtlety now, and making an argument that plucks the middle class voter’s heartstring: That rich jerk doesn’t even work for a living.

    Santorum’s been saying this, too. At the final South Carolina debate, he offered a quick, little-noticed diss of Romney’s career.

    I believe in capitalism, too. I believe in capitalism for everybody, not necessarily high finance but capitalism that works for the working men and women of this country.

    Holy dividin’ the country!

    Via Dave Weigel

  9. Tillman says:

    @Tano: They’d have to give it at some sort of convention or gathering, otherwise it’d lose immediately in the prestige factor. Have their own foreign dignitaries and what-not. Convening a convention just to respond to the President’s State of the Union speech, though, cries decadence. Though I suppose someone could make money off it.

  10. Hey Norm says:

    As a statement of the Republican position…it was a good speech. That doesn’t mean I agree with any of it, including the pessimistic tone. But it was a good response if you are a Republican and all you have is the hope that things get worse before they get better..

  11. Ron Beasley says:

    Daniels’ job was really mission impossible since 91% of Americans approved of the message including 58% of the Republicans. Last year it was 82%.

  12. His toughest language was reserved for the president’s failure to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline: “The extremism that stifles the development of homegrown energy, or cancels a perfectly safe pipeline that would employ tens of thousands, or jacks up consumer utility bills for no improvement in either human health or world temperature, is a pro-poverty policy. It must be replaced by a passionate pro-growth approach that breaks all ties and calls all close ones in favor of private-sector jobs that restore opportunity for all and generate the public revenues to pay our bills.”

    I approve of the idea of a pipeline from Canada to Texas in general, but the problem is the administration wasn’t tasked with evaluating the concept in general; they were evaluating a plan for a specific pipeline, one tied to a company (Enbridge) whose recent history should rightfully give pause before approving such a plan.

    The problem is that Republicans are so caught up in their anti-Obama rhetoric that they never move beyond knee-jerk reactionism to the generalities.

    Knee jerk pro-corporate stances are just as bad as knee jerk anti-corporate stances. Neither side seems to want to accept the reality that some businesses are great and some a terrible, and the instead of praising or condemning them all, we need to do a better job of distinguishing between the two.

  13. Scott F. says:

    A former budget director under George W. Bush, Daniels was chosen by Republican leaders as a respected and serious voice who could credibly position the party as the champion of business.

    This sentence tells you everything you need to know about the Republicans. A former Bush budget director equals business credibility… it makes one’s head spin.

  14. murray says:

    “…being assigned the task of providing the opposition response to the State Of The Union Address tends to be the most thankless, and potentially most disastrous, job in politics”

    Poor little thing. All he had to say is … NO.

    Refusing would, of course, have angered the GOP apparatus, which little Mitch doesn’t want to.

    And this guy wanted the presidency?! No way.

  15. Hey Norm says:

    @ Stormy…
    I agree…I don’t have a problem with the pipeline in theory. I want us to move away from fossil fuels…but that won’t happen overnight and we need infrastructure in the meantime. But I want it adequately reviewed. BP is doing a fair job of paying for the damage they inflicted on the GUlf Region…but they will never make it square. Exxon will never make the Valdez accident square. In spite of this Republicans want to give anything and everything away to the the corporate world. That’s not Government’s job. Government’s job is to protect the resources of all in an appropriate balance of economic and environmental interests. The Republicans should have never backed the administration into a corner on this…they blundered again.

  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    So much for the claim made in some quarters (but not by JJ) that it was ineffective.

  17. Rob in CT says:

    A former budget director under George W. Bush

    Yes, let us all take a moment to remember this. Much like Paul Ryan, if memory serves.

    Yes, so fiscally responsible, these guys.

  18. anjin-san says:

    I am not sure how the GOP can play the hand they hold. Nothing but joke candidates for President, and the twin disasters of a job recovery and rising overall confidence in the economy. How will they return us the the good old days of massive job losses? That is the question they face…

  19. @Hey Norm:

    BP is doing a fair job of paying for the damage they inflicted on the GUlf Region

    The problem is that if you look research it, BP is responsble for some ridiculous percentage of the major accidents in the oil industry (something like 85% over the last 10 years), has for years been getting reports from its own internal auditors that it’s employees and contractors were routinely ignoring saftey procedures, and was specifically warned by engineers that they shouldn’t try to build a well like Deepwater Horizon in that area with that sort of technology because it created a significant risk of exactly the sort of Methane release that caused the disaster.

    So I don’t really care if they did a good job of cleaning up, the disaster shouldn’t have happened to begin with. BP likes playing russian roulette with safety, because they get the benefits whenever they get lucky and don’t have to pay the costs when they don’t.

    What should happen is that BP should face criminal punishment, so that they are less competive than responsible oil companies. Instead we have democrats who want to punish every oil company and republicans who don’t want to punish anyone. Neither side creates incentives to be more responsible than your competitors.

  20. An Interested Party says:

    It certainly isn’t shocking that this President is pro-poverty, after all, he is the Food Stamp President…poor Republicans…I bet a lot of them would love to vote for Daniels rather than the choices they currently have…

  21. matt says:

    @Stormy Dragon: What would you recommend as a punishment for BP?

  22. Rob in CT says:

    One option would be litigation that results in a massive punative damage award.

    Another would simply to have regulators come down hard on BP – and BP specifically.

    Assuming the above is all true, of course.

    I don’t know how true it is that Dems want to “punish all oil companies.” I mean, some of the rank and file want to I guess, but the pols themselves? Eh, they seem pretty “business friendly” to me (lunatic ranting from the Right notwithstanding).

  23. @matt:

    To start with, criminal charges against the management chain for Deepwater horizon: manslaughter, causing a catastrophe, etc.

    Then, instead of shutting down all oil production in the gulf for 9 months, shut down just BP’s production.

    Third, instead of a flat tax on oil production to pay for cleanup, it should be weighted by the percentage of expenses incurred by that particular producer, so that there’s an incentive to be safer than the minimum requirements. The safer you are, the lower your overhead.

  24. @Rob in CT:

    I don’t know how true it is that Dems want to “punish all oil companies.”

    I don’t think they conciously want to punish all oil companies, but that is the end effect of their policy preferences is to do precisely that. In the wake of the BP spill, they shut down all gulf production for a period of months, regardless of whether particular companies had good records or bad records. Even if the intent of this moratorium was not to punish, in effect it resulted in a significant loss of revenue, and one that fell on responsible companies just as harshly as irresponsible ones.

    This creates a situation akin to the prisoner’s dilemma. What’s the point of spending more on safety if you still get punished based on the actions of your least safe competitor, while they enjoy higher profits because of all the money they saved in the process?

  25. matt says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Excellent it appears we’re on the same page but unfortunately I believe it’s highly unlikely 🙁