Skip Navigation

2011 Winter Issue 6 (February 18, 2011)

Mitch Daniels, worthy opponent

February 18, 2011
By David Heifetz

For those holding political power, permanent rule is often the goal at the back of their minds – whether it is their rule, or their party’s. Over the past 11 years, as power has flipped multiple times, people on both sides of the aisle have predicted prolonged dominance for the new party in power.

As we look to the Presidential election in 2012, many Democrats are observing a weak Republican field, a President with a 51 percent approval rating and an improving economy, and becoming giddy at the prospect of a two-term Obama presidency.

There is, I believe, ample reason to feel optimistic for the future of the Democratic Party. Hispanic growth in traditionally red states could lead to repeated Democratic success in the long run. In addition, the Republican Party has continued to move further to the right, facilitated very much by the Tea Party. This rightward pressure will likely make conservative candidates, who have to go through a grueling primary process, a hard sell to independents in many general elections, especially the Presidential one.

However, rather than thrilling me, I find the perceived long-term weakness of the Republican Party concerning; and not because I worry so much about a Republican surprise victory, but rather because long-term dominance is simply bad for the country.

Now, I fully believe the country would be better off if Democrats set the vast majority of the nation’s agenda. But no party can rule well if it does not have a worthy opponent constantly challenging it to refine its approach and policies. As President Obama has said, “No Party has a monopoly on good ideas.”

The vibrancy and health of our democracy depends on multiple parties who consistently push each other. Not only does prolonged dominance breed complacency, but this country also faces many problems that will require the participation of both parties in the problem-solving process. For these reasons, Democrats should worry about the weakness of many Republican candidates and policymakers.

This is why I’m excited about the governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, potential Republican presidential candidate. Although Politico labeled him, accurately, as the “heartthrob of the elites,” writing him off as a guy policy wonks love but who lacks mainstream appeal, his mere presence encourages me nonetheless. He gives me hope that someone might be around to work with Democrats as an honest broker at some point in the future. For even if a Presidential bid were to flounder, there is ample opportunity to exercise leadership from outside of government.

Why am I excited about Daniels? Simply put, he has been one of the few Republicans willing to push his party. He has presented himself as someone wanting to get things done, rather than posture politically. Earlier this year, he wrote an op-ed offering solutions on tax reform and the deficit and urging conservatives to call a truce on social issues until the country meets its urgent fiscal and economic challenges. More recently, he wrote a piece arguing Republicans should focus on how to change and improve the health care reform bill, rather than attempt symbolic gestures that won’t go anywhere, like repealing the bill in the House.

And then there was his recent speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of conservatives that has traditionally featured some of the most rightwing groups around. Addressing an audience that has valued ideological purity and views compromise as a four-letter word, Daniels showed real leadership. Although he did include some red meat anti-liberal rhetoric in the scheme of his larger message, it seemed like material more intended to keep his listeners awake, rather than portray him as a polarizing partisan figure.
First, urging conservatives to accept the need to settle for less than perfect options, he argued, “It is up to us to show, specifically, the best way back to greatness…. But, should the best way be blocked… then someone will need to find the second best way. Or the third, because the nation’s survival requires it.”

Then came perhaps the best line of the speech, and a strong condemnation of the Tea Party’s emphasis on ideological purity: 

“Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers.”

Next, he reminded the audience that, as any elected executive knows, progress can only come if you can attract less ideological voters who are closer to the middle: 

“We must be the vanguard of recovery, but we cannot do it alone…. We will need people who never tune in to Rush [Limbaugh] or Glenn [Beck] or Laura [Ingraham] or Sean [Hannity].”

Following that was a passionate call for people to grapple with the real problem of economic inequality, an issue that Republicans have hardly been heard admitting is a problem at all: 

“We must display a heart for every American, and a special passion for those still on the first rung of life’s ladder. Upward mobility from the bottom is the crux of the American promise, and the stagnation of the middle class is in fact becoming a problem, on any fair reading of the facts. 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.”

If Obama said this, he’d be called a Socialist. Finally, he made a thoughtful point about attitudes toward government:

“We should distinguish carefully skepticism about Big Government from contempt for all government. After all, it is a new government we hope to form, a government we will ask our fellow citizens to trust to make huge changes.”

There is little that frustrates me more than thoughtless blasting of government without any regard for its many worthy and valuable functions.

While I do not agree with Daniels politically, seeing a thoughtful and courageous figure on the right is a great thing for our democracy and nation. Although I do hope to see Democrats set the agenda for a long time, they can only do so and move the country forward with worthy opponents challenging them at every turn.

Add a comment

Please login to comment.