Mitch Daniels: The Rare Politician Telling It like It Is

Indiana's Mitch Daniels is brutally candid about the difficulty of real deficit cutting

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Illustration by Matt Dorfman for TIME; Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

A long time ago—I think it was at an annual meeting of the Christian Coalition in the mid-1990s—the Republican stalwart William Bennett introduced a parade of his party's candidates for President by warning the audience to be wary of pandering politicians. "And if a candidate tells you only things you want to hear," he said, "if he asks nothing of you, then give him nothing in return, certainly not your vote, because he is not telling you the truth."

The Bennett Test is my bright line for presidential cattle shows (in both parties). Over the course of now 10—God help me—presidential campaigns, I've seen only a handful of candidates pass it, and most of those had no hope of winning. I remember John Anderson chiding his fellow Republicans about their gun love in 1980. Bruce Babbitt campaigned in 1988 under a banner that actually read "Babbitt: Universal Means Testing." Bill Clinton in 1992 was the only candidate I've seen who challenged his party's base, on social policy issues like welfare and crime, and won. Certainly, this has been foreign turf for Republicans, with their sturdy three-legged stool of a governing philosophy: low taxes, strong defense, traditional values.

But the latter-day Republicans are becoming a more interesting party, riven by differing opinions on national defense and social issues. At this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), there were two candidates who passed the Bennett test with flying colors. One was the libertarian Ron Paul, who challenged the strong-defense leg of the stool by celebrating the Republican-led House vote against some of the more intrusive provisions of the Patriot Act and calling, once again, for an end to the war in Afghanistan. CPAC has been pretty much overwhelmed by Paul's young minions in recent years—they're also not too keen on the traditional-values leg of the stool, especially if it involves opposition to gay rights and legalized marijuana—and their response to his appearance was tumultuous: Paul won the presidential straw poll.

Paul, though, has little chance to win the nomination, as Donald Trump, who has begun his campaign to lead the GOP's reality-TV wing, pointed out. A far more interesting form of candor came from Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana. Daniels didn't challenge his party's core beliefs; he gave a very conservative speech about the budget deficit. But he passed the Bennett Test nonetheless, bracing his party on matters of style and intellectual honesty. He was brutally candid about how difficult real deficit cutting would have to be: neither the military nor the elderly would be spared.

But Daniels' real breakthrough was his measured tone, the absence of demagoguery. Presidential cattle shows are, it is said, a prime occasion to toss "red meat" to the party faithful. Usually the meat in question is baloney, but Daniels pretty much eschewed the sausage. He did not indulge in the silliness of the current conservative attack against Barack Obama: that the President had denigrated American exceptionalism by saying—accurately—that Greeks believe Greece is exceptional and ditto the Brits. Daniels didn't talk about Obama's foreign policy at all. He was unrelenting in his attack on the liberal welfare state, but he did it substantively—with only one sordid venture into Republican exceptionalism: "Our opponents are better at nastiness than we will ever be," he said.

And yet Daniels undercut this thick slice of braunschweiger by calling out his own party's nasty caucus and making a plea for a bigger Republican tent: "We will need people who never tune in to Rush or Glenn or Laura or Sean," he said, and addressed that larger tribe by saying, "Our main task is not to see that people of great wealth add to it but that those without much money have a greater chance to earn some." (Daniels has proposed raising some taxes on the wealthy in Indiana.) This was, truly, red meat for grownups.

That said, I have a basic problem with Daniels' message. He posits the federal deficit as an overwhelming "red menace." If so, why didn't he resign as budget director when George W. Bush approved an unnecessary, unpaid-for war in Iraq and egregious tax cuts that evaporated the surpluses Bill Clinton (and Newt Gingrich) had built? Furthermore, I suspect Daniels' menace is secondary to some larger problems: the hollowing out of the American middle class, of American industrial capacity; the lassitude in our educational system; the greed and laziness that are our affluenza hangover.

Any presidential contender whose intellectual honesty wins the notice of columnists like me is usually doomed to irrelevance. Daniels won only 4% support in the CPAC straw poll. But I would pay cash money to watch him debate Obama on these issues, and I suspect the Republic would be much the better for it.