News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

May 15, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Appeasing hard-liners in presidential race could erode Daniels’ budget-minded appeal

Some Hoosiers who voted Mitch Daniels into the Indiana governor’s seat in 2004 may not recognize Mitch Daniels, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, if he chooses to run.

Back then, his most audacious idea was to set Indiana’s clocks to daylight saving time. The DST furor now seems about as consequential as a barstool argument over NFL instant replays. The Republican-dominated 2011 legislative session forced Daniels to take stands in a territory he asked his party’s state lawmakers to avoid — conservative social issues. So earlier this month, while signing new laws he championed (particularly education reforms), Daniels also put his autograph on the defunding of Planned Parenthood, the removal of local communities’ ability to keep guns out of hospitals and school board meetings, and the denial of in-state college tuition rates for students classified as illegal immigrants.

Has this situation revealed an unseen side of the frugal governor, a new Mitch Daniels? Or is he appeasing the Republican right just enough to win its support in a run for the top spot on the party’s 2012 presidential ticket? Maybe both.

Remember, in a 2010 interview with The Weekly Standard, Daniels said the next president “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We’re just going to have to get along for a little while.” That comment infuriated hard-line conservatives. His recent decisions may placate those critics.

That shift could put him in a precarious spot, nationally. The reason Daniels has gained rock star status as a potential GOP candidate for the Oval Office is his laser focus on the efficiency of Indiana’s government. His track record — turning the state’s $200-million deficit into a $1.3-billion surplus through tough, recession-era cuts and, yes, added sales and tobacco taxes — is big enough to blot out the sun shining on other Republican possibilities, given the sudden national fascination with the years-in-the-making federal deficit.

But the hot issues of presidential campaigns can shift by the week, and the more Daniels gets dragged off the balance-the-budget track, the more he’ll sound like just another voice in a pre-primary debate over immigration or gun rights. On the other hand, his willingness to sign those social-issue bills into law may allow Daniels to stay above the fray. He can simply point to his record, “without him having to, in a debate, jump up and down and enunciate those” stances, said Michael Wolf, associate professor of political science at IUPU-Fort Wayne.

“Which is quite a luxury for him,” Wolf added. “He’s really starting from a really good position.”

Still, hours can seem like years on the campaign trail. If Daniels gets in and stays in, for the long haul, he’ll have to expound on his moral beliefs, especially during the Republican primary season. To win the GOP presidential nomination, Daniels would have to somehow satisfy the divergent wings of the party, which may require more than balancing-the-books talk. In the all-important South, for example, he probably already appeals to “country club Republicans,” but not to the former George Wallace Democrats, said Bert Rockman, head of Purdue University’s political science department.

“He can’t look unacceptable to [the conservative right],” Rockman said, “but he may not have to make love to them.”

Just developing that politically platonic relationship could create a Daniels persona unfamiliar to Hoosiers. “Daniels the presidential nominee would not look the same as Daniels the governor,” Rockman said.

Most folks in his home state probably have forgotten Daniels’ last campaign challenge from the conservative right, as IUPUI political scientist Brian Vargus pointed out last week. In the 2004 Republican gubernatorial primary — Daniels’ first pursuit of elected office — he was opposed by Eric Miller, an Indianapolis lawyer, lobbyist and longtime conservative activist. Sixty-seven percent of Hoosier Republicans voting in that primary chose Daniels.

From that time onward, Daniels seldom strayed from a bottom-line, accountant-like approach, even while campaigning in his RV or aboard his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Through every ruckus — daylight saving time, privatizing the Indiana Toll Road and the Family Social Services Administration, merit pay and collective bargaining restrictions for teachers and state employees, and state funding of charter schools and private-school vouchers — he emphasized how each move would make Indiana more solvent, more competitive and more appealing to employers. (Some of Daniels’ ventures as governor, like the FSSA overhaul, fizzled; others, such as the taxpayer-funded private-school voucher system, appear divisive and ill-advised. But, at least in Daniels’ mind, all make economic sense.)

That style worked in Indiana for Daniels, who won elections in 2004 and 2008.

On a national level, some factions of his party may appreciate his fiscal prudence, but pay far greater attention to social causes. Daniels may need them to transform from a “rising star” into the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, and be forced to commit to positions on multiple, hot-button conservative ideals. “Whether Daniels is comfortable with all of those [right-wing] stances, we’ll have to wait and see,” Vargus said.

Perhaps his latest actions on Planned Parenthood clinics, gun limits and immigration are as far right socially as he’ll go, or will need to go. Those still angry over Daniels’ plea for a truce may not be appeased. “Obviously, he’s not very popular with Rush Limbaugh and those people,” Wolf said.

What Republicans must remember, though, is that their nominee faces a general election against President Obama. “Of all the Republicans, [Daniels] has the best chance,” Wolf said.

Mitch Daniels, the fiscal Hoosier pragmatist, that is. A recast, social activist Mitch Daniels may lose more supporters than he gains.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              (812) 231-4377      end_of_the_skype_highlighting or mark.bennett@tribstar. com.

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