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Mitch Daniels and the complicated relationship between conservatives and intellectuals

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Last night, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels received the Hudson Institute's Herman Kahn Award. It was a friendly audience for Daniels, who ran Hudson before running for office, and for his 2012 ambitions. (One of the other people sitting at my table asked if I knew "the single reason" the economy wasn't growing very quickly. I suggested an absence of demand. He shook his head sadly. "The European socialist in the White House," he said.) But that doesn't mean it was an easy event for the Hoosier. In fact, I've rarely seen anyone deliver a more difficult speech.

Daniels's task was to reconcile the brand of rigorous intellectual analysis that Kahn prized and Hudson offers with the contempt for cloistered, self-styled experts that's emerged as central to the conservative critique of the Obama White House. And though it was interesting to watch Daniels attempt the trick, he didn't really land it.

We began with stories of the common man. The Indiana resident who would bring his bear Otis to the local bar. The elderly Jew who took to the woods as part of the resistance during the Holocaust and tells of the intellectuals who suddenly found themselves useless. Daniels held that Kahn was the sort of intellectual who placed himself among the people, not above them. He applied his intellect to "practical problems," like thermonuclear war. He loved interrogating taxi drivers, looking for the nugget of insight they had that he didn't.

That doesn't make him much use in the woods, of course. Kahn was more than six feet tall and weighed more than 300 pounds. That doesn't suggest an affinity for the survivalist lifestyle. I can't say what he would've thought of Otis, who once knocked his owner cold when he swiped him with his paw during one particularly long night at the bar. And if talking to taxi drivers makes you a populist, then Tom Friedman is going to lead the revolution.

When Daniels turned to reading excerpts of Kahn's writing, it quickly became clear that he prized Kahn's policy analysis, not his common touch. The first advocated a tax on imported oil as a way to "internalize" its security costs. "I think that's interesting," said Daniels, who allowed that some in the audience may not like it. Then he turned to Kahn's advocacy of a tax code that combined a flat income tax with a standard deduction with a value-added tax. That appealed to Daniels, too, though we'll see if a European-style VAT will take off among conservatives anytime soon.

The closest Daniels got to mentioning Barack Obama, liberals or Democrats came while he was chiding conservatives who fret that a society where so few people pay federal income taxes and so many receive government benefits cannot prosper. "Leave that thinking to the statists," he said, arguing that pessimism about the American people didn't fit conservatism. The filet mignon served at the event was the only red meat the audience got.

At the end of the evening, Hudson passed out a bound collection of Kahn's writings. The title? "In Defense of Thinking." It sounded like the sort of thing you might find at a Cambridge bookstore rather than amid the wildlife at an Indiana bar. But however much Daniels likes Kahn's books, the votes are in Indiana's bars, and they don't care if pointy-headed intellectuals think it's a bad idea to pet the bear.

By Ezra Klein  | October 15, 2010; 6:21 PM ET
Categories:  2012 Presidential  
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Comments

If this man wants to be President, he'd better start mixing in some birther talk, pronto.

Posted by: vvf2 | October 15, 2010 9:23 PM | Report abuse

I've had a very nice Napa Chardonnay this evening, but at least one more seems to be in order before attempting to make heads or tails of this post.

Posted by: bgmma50 | October 15, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, when you go to Hudson Institute dinners it make it hard to defend you to people who call you a young David Broder.

Posted by: chrismealy | October 15, 2010 10:44 PM | Report abuse

How exactly would a tax on imported oil work? Since we import somewhere near 2/3 of our oil, AND we can't increase US production due to legislative control, AND since oil is priced in declining American dollars, AND since there is currently no replacemnt for oil in the economy; this would result in a rise in the price of gasoline of somewhere around 20-25% over the year following it's implementation. That of course would be really good news for an economy with 10% unemployment.

The really, really, good news is that reportedly the EPA will allow an increase of ethanol to 15% which means that food prices will rise too as the market becomes more skewed away from food corn production and more toward the greatest energy boondoggle in history . . . ethanol.

Posted by: 54465446 | October 16, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

I actually thought this was an extremely interesting glimpse into that life - the dance politicians have to do to balance principles and populism.

This + the NYT profile of Barack Obama the other day make them sound not so different. Thoughtful, theory- and data- driven people, but not quite sure how to appeal to the masses.

Posted by: madjoy | October 16, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Outrageous to say such things

Posted by: SaveTheRainforest | October 17, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

I wrote an essay like this when I was a freshman in college and thought I had provided some wonderful insight.

My professor thought it was a pile of crap.

It would be helpful for the rubes at the WaPo editorial desk to actually read this nonsense before dumping it into the public domain.

Posted by: bacala1 | October 18, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

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