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Thinking About Mitch Daniels

Let me preface my remarks by saying that I admire Mitch Daniels. I think that he has been a fabulous governor, and I was once inclined to put him at the top or near the top of my list of plausible presidential hopefuls. That list does not , let me add, include Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, or Rudy Giuliani. I think that all four have qualities; I also think that their day is done. And I hope that these dinosaurs choose not to enter the presidential sweepstakes – since I suspect that their presence would muddy the process.

As I said, I once ranked Daniels at or near the top; I no longer do so. I would like to be proven wrong about him, but I have misgivings – and I am beginning to think that my suspicions are sound. Last summer, I posted on BigGovernment.com a series of pieces on executive temperament. I began with Barack Obama who had demonstrated by fecklessness on a grand scale that he lacked the requisite instincts. Then, I went on to examine a series of Republican governors – Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, and Mitch Daniels – who have demonstrated that they really understand what it means to say, “The buck stops here.” Finally, I posted a piece arguing that executive temperament is not enough – that principles matter. FDR was a man of executive temperament, and he exhibited all of the right instincts – in pursuit of ends inconsistent with everything that is good about this country. My aim in this exercise was to lay the foundations for a later judgment of Republican presidential contenders, and at the time I thought Daniels the most attractive of the lot.

The reason was simple, and it still holds weight. Daniels understands budgets, and he managed to put Indiana on a sound fiscal basis shortly before the beginning of the current economic crisis in 2007. Moreover, in the process, he showed himself to be both decisive and persuasive. To this, one can add that he knows the federal budget. He was George W. Bush’s first Director of the Office of Management and the Budget. He has a good grasp of our fiscal problems already. He knows down which rat holes the money is disappearing, and he is not apt to be behindhand in a quest to turn things around. We need someone with his expertise and his determination to prune. Even now, I find it hard to believe that there is anyone who would be better . . . in this particular.

But our fiscal crisis is not the only particular that the next President will have to address. It is pressing. It may seem to be the most pressing of our problems. But I could easily imagine difficulties that would outweigh the fiscal crisis. Indeed, I suspect that such difficulties may soon present themselves. Our strategic situation is less strong than it was in the recent past. In the Pacific, the Chinese are behaving like bullies, and step by step, at a far more rapid rate than we had anticipated, they are putting military pieces in place intended to guarantee them strategic superiority offshore. What this means no one knows. But it would be foolish not to plan for the worst. My bet is that over the next fifteen years they will try to duplicate Japan’s achievement in establishing a Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. In other words, their aim will be to achieve hegemony – both military and economic – over all of their neighbors: from Australia and New Zealand in the South to North and South Korea in the North.

I also believe that we are witnessing a strategic shift in the Mediterranean and the Near East. I have argued elsewhere, at some length, that Arab nationalism is finished – and that it is highly likely that the world of Sunni Islam will follow Shiite Iran in the direction of what I call “Islamic Revivalism.” Put simply, the Arab nationalism that emerged in the 1920s and came of age in the 1940s has failed. To the Arabs, it has brought neither prosperity nor military strength, and next to no one in the younger generation (apart from opportunists) is on its side. They are turning to the only remaining cultural force that has purchase in the post-Cold War world. They are turning to Islam, and to it they now look to answer all of their questions. I cannot predict the short-term consequences of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Jordan, and Bahrain. But I believe that I can predict the long-term drift of politics in that part of the worlds and in Turkey as well. Those states will become more fiercely Islamic and much more hostile to us, to our European allies, and, of course, to Israel.

To this picture, we should add the Iranian quest to gain nuclear weapons. If that quest is successful – and I see no clear indication that, under Barack Obama, we are going to do anything decisive to stop it, the theocrats in Iran will become much more aggressive, and the Sunnis will move heaven and earth to get their own nuclear weapons. Given the concentration of oil in the states surrounding the Persian Gulf, this bodes ill for us and for our allies in Europe.

What does Mitch Daniels know about any of this? We have no indication. All that we know is that he believes that the military budget needs to be cut in the same manner as the rest of the federal budget. This I regard as profoundly dangerous. In the wake of the Cold War, we cut back massively – in the number of ships, the number of planes, and the number of men – and in recent years we have cancelled one procurement program after another, ignoring the gains made by the Chinese and our changing strategic situation in and beyond the Mediterranean. If Daniels thinks he can cut the budget further, I would want to know what missions he thinks we can safely drop. What we have done in recent years is to extend the responsibilities of the military while cutting back their resources. That way lies disaster.

What we are now doing cannot go on – and there is no indication that Mitch Daniels has given this problem a thought. My impression is that he deals with one problem at a time. In Indiana, that might work. It will not work in DC. The primary function of the federal government – the main reason it was created – is to provide for our defense. If Daniels is a green-eyeshade guy and that is all that he is, his presidency would be a national catastrophe. Barack Obama has already done great damage. We cannot afford more. In a time of technological dynamism, things can go wrong very, very quickly – and then we will not be worrying about Americans being out of work. We will be worrying about their being killed. If I am wrong in my suspicions regarding Daniels – and I hope I am – it is time for him to show his cards. I want to know what his understanding of our strategic situation is. In the absence of a clear statement, I could not offer him my support.

I also find his call for a “truce” with respect to the social issues disturbing. In the period since 1973, evangelical Christians, who had long voted for the Democratic Party, and Roman Catholics began drifting into the Republican Party. They did so for any number of reasons, but the primary driver was the stance of the Democratic Party regarding abortion. The Republicans welcomed them into their ranks, and they committed themselves to rolling back Roe v. Wade. But to date they have not delivered, and the evangelicals and the Catholics are restive in our ranks. Many of them are attracted – foolishly, I think – by the social welfare policies promoted by the Democratic Party. For generations, the Catholic bishops and priests have encouraged Catholic parishioners to think of social welfare as a form of charity, to mistake resources taken by coercion for free gifts, and many a Protestant preacher has in similar fashion come to preach the Social Gospel. Nonetheless, they are appalled – and rightly so – by the massacre of fifty million unborn Americans, and this has shaken them from the grasp of the progressives.

I am not arguing that the next election should or will be fought over abortion. No Republican presidential candidate has done so to date. What Mitch Daniels proposes, however, is not that the Republicans emphasize the fiscal crisis in 2012. No one would object to that. He is arguing that the social issues be set aside – temporarily, he says, until we have dealt with the fiscal crisis. In the meantime, we will have to form a larger coalition that takes in large numbers of those who favor abortion.

I have no idea whether Daniels has the wit to understand the implications of what he is proposing. I would like to think that he lacks the wit, for I would prefer to judge him a fool than to think him a knave. In any case, what I will say is that this is a matter that cannot be taken off the table any more than slavery could be taken off the table in the 1850s, Stephen Douglas to the contrary notwithstanding. We cannot have a “truce” over the legitimacy of the massacre of fifty million innocents. Truce is a euphemism for surrender – and if the Republicans surrender, the evangelicals and the Catholics will wander out of the coalition in much the same fashion in which they wandered in. And, then, what will be left?

There is one other matter that worries me. There has been a debate recently on the blog of The Weekly Standard – between Jay Cost, who tends to think that politics is about bread alone and who thinks Daniels’ truce viable, and John McCormack who thinks this notion daft, as I do. On Friday, Jennifer Rubin, who blogs now for The Washington Post and shares my foreign policy concerns with regard to Daniels, had this question to ask: What about the Supreme Court? What sort of judges will Daniels be apt to appoint?

It is a good question, as I suspect everyone who regularly reads Ricochet will agree, and Rubin’s answer is disquieting:

One clue to how Daniels would proceed is his record in appointing judges. Carrie Severino explains:

The single most important judicial issue in Indiana is the ongoing debate over the state’s method for appointing appellate judges. It’s not much of a debate, actually, thanks in part to Daniels. Indiana uses a form of the Missouri Plan, the commission-based method for choosing judges that was designed by Progressive Era lawyers to put “experts” in charge of judicial selection. The “experts,” of course, are lawyers. When the issue was in front of Daniels, he took the worst possible approach. In 2009, overwhelming majorities of the Indiana General Assembly (88-3 in the House, 35-15 in the Senate) approved legislation to kill that method in parts of Indiana. Governor Daniels vetoed it. …

Then, when Indiana had a supreme court vacancy to fill, he failed to say a single word about the state’s flawed judicial-selection process and dutifully appointed a nominee sent to him by the state’s nominating commission.

In other words, he didn’t care enough to raise a fuss. As if that were not enough, he wound up appointing Judge Steven H. David to the state supreme court. David, Severino explains, is a nightmare appointment from conservatives’ perspective:

David is a former chief defense counsel for detainees at Guantanamo Bay who praised the majority opinion in Boumediene v. Bush with this trite quote: “The most important thing that Boumediene held is something that I always thought was obvious … that in America, there are no law-free zones.” Or maybe he could explain why the official Steven David bio released by his office announced the fact that David is a member of the American Judicature Society, the leading institutional proponent of the Missouri Plan, and beneficiary of more than $1 million in contributions from George Soros’s Open Society Institute since 2000. Daniels may well have chosen the least bad option presented to him by the commission, but that cannot excuse him supporting a system that ties the governor’s hands to such an extent that he can only choose the least offensive of three liberal nominees.

This is the danger in electing a conservative who is focused on only one big thing; the other side winds up winning many important fights.

It seems to me that there is enough evidence for us to make a preliminary judgment regarding Mitch Daniels’ presidential candidacy – and that is, that he has given us reason to doubt whether he is up to the job. Of course, this does not mean that, if he were to be more forthcoming, we might not find ourselves called upon to rethink what is, after all, nothing more than a preliminary judgment. Nor does it mean that he should not have a place in the next Republican administration. His virtues are undeniable. Do we have anyone in our stable who would make a better Secretary of the Treasury or a better Director of the Office of Management and the Budget?