Mitch Daniels Explains Himself Well... But Having to is a Problem

-By Warner Todd Huston

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels once again did a fine job explaining himself over his recent seemingly controversial opposition to introducing any right to work laws in Indiana. Turns out he really isn't that opposed to it, but he sure seemed to be against the idea a few days ago. He has since said his opposition was misunderstood. Unfortunately Daniels seems to be spending an awful lot of time re-explaining himself these days and this seems to auger that he is not running for president.

On the 22nd the IndyStar reported that Daniels wanted Republicans to drop the right to work law they were contemplating introducing. This report caused such conservatives as Jim Geraghty of the National Review to say, "color me extremely disappointed" in the Hoosier State's governor. Daniels has since clarified and also complained that the IndyStar sort of misquoted him. Now, usually I'd be the first to jump on the knock-the-media bandwagon, but in this case I don't see how anyone could say he was misquoted in the pages of the IndyStar.

Still, on February 23 Daniels did a very fair job of explaining what he really meant by his opposition to the right to work law proposal.

Here in Indiana we have a very extensive 2011 agenda that these critics, if they took the time to look, would strongly applaud: another no-tax budget, an automatic refund to taxpayers past a specified level of state reserves, sweeping reform of archaic and anti-taxpayer local government, reduction of the corporate income tax, and the most far-reaching reform of education in America, including statewide vouchers for low and moderate income families. We laid all this before the public during last year's elections.

Into this a few of my allies chose to toss Right to Work (RTW). I suggested studying it for a year and developing the issue for next year. No one had campaigned on it; it was a big issue that hit the public cold. I was concerned that it would provide the pretext for radical action by our Democratic minority that would jeopardize the entire agenda above, with zero chance of passing RTW itself. And that is exactly what has happened.

We're not giving up on the agenda we ran on, but this mistake presents a significant obstacle. RTW never had a chance this year and now the task is to make sure that it doesn't take a host of good government changes down with it.

Yes, very reasonable. It makes perfect sense. I endorse his position, even.

The problem is that Daniels was sufficiently vague in his original comments that he was so easily misunderstood. He's had this problem at least once before and on a major issue, too.

Back in June, at one point in an extensive interview Daniels told the Weekly Standard that the GOP would have to stop talking about social issues in this upcoming presidential election cycle. The fiscal problems were so overwhelming, he felt, that social issues needed to take a back seat. Daniels said the next president "would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We're going to just have to agree to get along for a little while," until the fiscal problems are solved.

This caused the social conservatives no end of heartburn. Was he one of those squishes on social issues many wondered? Was he pro-abortion, even? As a result some Social Cons immediately washed their hands of any possibility of a Mitch Daniels for president. Many said that Daniels was finished:

"Unless he does a mea culpa--I was wrong--he has no chance of winning the nomination," said Richard Land, one of the nation's most politically seasoned social conservative leaders. "You can't win the nomination without pro life and pro family votes and they are not going to vote for him when he says you have to go to the back of the bus. Those days are over."

Daniels had to do some backtracking. He had to point out that his anti-abortion record is perfectly in keeping with the best Social Cons desires. Yet even so he's several times doubled down on his "truce" idea. This does not instill confidence in the primary voting base of the Party.

These two gaffes were bad enough but Daniels also seems to be uninterested in foreign policy issues. Recently Commentary's Jennifer Rubin asked Daniels a foreign policy question and all he gave in answer was "a platitude," according to Rubin.

I asked him the sole question on foreign policy -- in what fundamental ways Obama had erred? He did not address any of the basic concerns conservatives have been discussing (e.g., engagement with despots, indifference on human rights, animus toward Israel). Instead, he gave a platitude, "Peace through strength has totally been vindicated." And then he immediately asserted that we have to "ask questions about the extent of our commitments." He said, "If we go broke, no one will follow a pauper." At least temporarily, he said, we can't maintain all our commitments. But if our foes don't take a break, what do we do? Should we pull up stakes in Iraq and Afghanistan and hack away at the defense budget? It's not clear whether he has thought these issues through, or whether he views foreign policy as anything more than a cost-control issue.

Policy wise Daniels seems to have one strength and one strength only: fiscal expertise. Of course that he has in spades.

The question is, if Daniels runs for president, are we in enough trouble fiscally that every other issue can be ignored or dealt with in platitudes? Will the voters think that fiscal issues are so important that none of the others are worth pinning Daniels down on?

In any case, it seems that Daniels is not seriously pursuing the White House because he is spending no time at all trying to tailor his comments to deliver a greater, more ideologically cohesive message, the sort upon which one can build a presidential campaign.

Let's hope he isn't running, at least. He was just basically endorsed by The New York Times' David Brooks and that is a sever blow to Daniels' conservative creds, for sure, one it would be hard for him to get over at this point.

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