I can't blame anyone for dreaming about a late entrant to the Republican presidential field -- Mitt Romney is tone deaf, Newt Gingrich is insufferable, Rick Santorum seems unable to catch fire, and Ron Paul, well, is Ron Paul. The likelihood of beating Barack Obama with any of these guys is uncertain at best, and the desire for someone more conservative, competent, and capable is hard to deny.
A sizeable slice of the conservative commentariat seems to think drafting Mitch Daniels is the answer. The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol declares the Indiana Governor the winner of a debate he didn't attend, the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens says we deserve to lose the election partly because this member of "the GOP A-Team" hasn't answered the call, National Review's Mona Charen sighs that "our best leaders" like Daniels are sitting it out, and Charles Krauthammer applauds Daniels for one of the best State of the Union responses he's ever heard.
To all of which, I can only shake my head and ask: are you insane?
For starters, I must have been watching a different channel Tuesday night, because I certainly didn't see a rhetorical tour de force. Though well-constructed as prose, the text of Daniels' speech fell short as argument because it was high on generalities and platitudes, but decidedly lacking in clear specifics about either Obama's abysmal presidency or the content of his address. Daniels' assertion that America's challenges "aren't matters of ideology" but "simply mathematical" problems with "purely practical" answers is the polar opposite of reality.
And if the content was lacking, the delivery was worse -- Daniels' dry, monotone presentation came across as a lack of passion that undermined what little force his words held. If someone really believes 2012 is "maybe our last" chance to save the country, you'd expect him to get a little emotional about it. Do these people really not understand that people flocked to Gingrich because he channels not just disagreement, but righteous indignation at what Obama is doing to their country?
Moving on to Daniels' merits, the dream becomes even more delusional. Far from being a great unifier, Daniels would give every faction of the conservative base something to fear:
- - Values voters have his call for an ambiguous "truce" on social issues that denigrates the importance of life and marriage and apparently misunderstands that liberals don't do truces.
- - Fiscal cons have his capitulation to union pressure on Right to Work, his own Obama-style healthcare boondoggle, and his sympathy to the value-added tax.
- - Defense hawks have his lack of a foreign policy vision, his admission that he's "probably not" ready to debate Obama on foreign policy, and his willingness to cut defense spending.
- - Immigration hawks have his criticism of Arizona's SB1070, particularly "the provisions that have been the ones that have bothered most people" (notice a pattern here?).
We're supposed to overlook all this for the sake of Daniels' laser-like focus on restoring fiscal sanity to the nation. But he was no budget warrior as governor of Indiana, where "according to the CNBC/Forbes.com, which annually ranks states according to business climate, Indiana has a $1.4-billion budget deficit as of FY2011," or as President Bush's director of the Office of Management & Budget:
During Mitch's 29-month tenure, our annual surplus of $236 billion turned into a $400 billion deficit.
Mitch Daniels now tells us the "Red (Ink) Menace" is a lethal enemy, but in February 2003, Budget Director Mitch Daniels told Time magazine's James Carney that "a balanced budget ... is not the top or the only priority."
To advocate for a Mitch Daniels candidacy is to misdiagnose everything about the 2012 election. The nominee must be a great communicator; Daniels would put voters outside the Beltway to sleep. The base wants a fighter; Daniels is a serial capitulator. Republicans distrust Romney largely because of healthcare; Daniels has the same liability. The world beyond our shores isn't getting any safer, yet nothing recommends Daniels to the role of commander-in-chief. America needs a debt-buster, and there's little evidence Daniels is that man.
There's simply no void in the GOP field that Mitch Daniels fills. He shares several of Romney's weaknesses, and while he lacks Gingrich's flaws, he also lacks Gingrich's strengths. He displays none of Santorum's fortitude, and we simply don't know how much ground he shares with Paul on defense. That such a comprehensively unimpressive politician could become the heartthrob of so many pundits suggests that the Right's problems run deeper than anyone is willing to admit.