Neil King’s fine weekend feature in the Wall Street Journal on Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels ends this way:
Mr. Daniels is convinced that as president, he would know how to fix the country's debt and swelling entitlements. He's less sure he has the stomach for pursuing the job. "A friend of mine said to me, 'Mitch, you have a fatal flaw as a candidate.' And I said, 'I have a lot of them. Which one did you have in mind?' And he said, 'You can live without it.'"
And this about sums up where we are in the 2012 GOP presidential field: the most interesting potential candidate is perfectly comfortable with the idea of not running. A few observations:
- Daniels really only cares about the big problems facing us and wants them fixed, whether he does the fixing or someone else. He doesn’t seem at all enamored with the idea of being President, and he very believably says he’ll step aside if someone else would only step up and take on the big issues (and he may step aside anyway, even if no one shows up to fight the big fight). We should take him at face value on this.
- If he runs, it would likely be a solemn sense of duty that drives him to do it - and that's probably about it. His nonchalance about running was on display this morning on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. It's impossible to draw any other conclusion listening to Daniels than he is thinking about running as a public obligation, not because he really sees much upside personally in doing it. This just makes him all the more interesting and appealing.
- No other 2012 contender exhibits this same trait, which makes Daniels all the more appealing.
Only Chris Christie is as interesting as Daniels in this regard, and he’s certainly made it clear he’s not running – threatening suicide and all to prove his point (again, the guy is interesting).
Daniels is the most interesting 2012 potential because of the debates he starts by what he says and does. He has won the praise of the likes of George Will, David Brooks, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and other prominent voices for racing headlong onto the high-voltage third rails of American politics (King’s WSJ feature quotes him saying it’s time “to grab every third rail there is, all the things that people say, 'Well, you just can't do that politically'"). There is a lot of enthusiasm building in and out of Washington about what a Daniels candidacy would mean for America.
But Daniels has also taken heat for his “truce” comments from the likes of Rush Limbaugh as well as other 2012 potentials (e.g., Huckabee, Santorum) who see it as a useful tool with which to differentiate themselves. Mark Levin ripped Daniels for being fiscally soft during the union situation (it’s pretty clear Levin didn’t have the facts straight). The Grover Norquist crowd is uneasy about Daniels because he proposed a one-year tax on the wealthy in Indiana in his first year as a way to fill a fiscal gap and because, at a think tank event, he hypothesized about the merits of a VAT.
No other candidate sparks the same kinds of internal debate within the GOP. Everyone pretty much thinks RomneyCare was a bust, except for Romney and a few supporters. Whether or not Huckabee was soft on tax policy as a Governor is debatable, but he hasn’t said much to spark any debate on the point. Palin just creates buzz through her personality but hasn’t created controversy on matters of principle and policy. And so on.
One might argue that an “interesting” candidate like Daniels would confuse primary voters and create distractions by things he says. I think the opposite. America’s ready for a straight-talking, well-reasoned candidate who doesn’t really care if people like what he says. These characteristics have become virtues. And they'll probably serve him better in the primary than some skeptics think.
It's no mistake that Daniels and Christie have high approval ratings in their states. Their honesty with voters has paid political dividends.
And perhaps it's no mistake, then, that these guys just don't seem to find the prospect of the White House as enticing as everyone else seems to. In the movie Gladiator, when Maximus says that, with all his heart, he cannot accept an offer to be Rome's protector, Marcus Aurelius says "that is why it must be you." The same can be said of Daniels. His desire not to run is precisely why he should.