Does Mitch Daniels want to be president?
Gov. Mitch Daniels had CPAC's dinner speaking slot on Friday. With an introduction by George Will, he certainly proved himself to be a serious economic wonk. But he did little to remove doubts about his electability and his desire to be president.
He seemed indifferent to the flap about his support for and then retreat from a "truce" on social issues. He didn't mention it at all. He sounded a bit Ron-Paulish in his eagerness to cut defense. He declared:
In this room, we all know how hard the answers are, how much change is required.
And that means nothing, not even the first and most important mission of government, our national defense, can get a free pass. I served in two administrations that practiced and validated the policy of peace through strength. It has served America and the world with irrefutable success. But if our nation goes over a financial Niagara, we won't have much strength and, eventually, we won't have peace. We are currently borrowing the entire defense budget from foreign investors. Within a few years, we will be spending more on interest payments than on national security. That is not, as our military friends say, a "robust strategy."
And in fact, by labeling the deficit the "Red Menace" he may have reinforced the impression that the former OMB director is passionate about one thing only: balancing the books. In other words, he didn't seem like a man preparing a complete agenda for a presidential run.
Or perhaps he's one of those candidates -- the un-Romney -- who is oblivious to or contemptuous of the agenda and sensibility of voters. The base wants to hear him "check the box" on social issues; he thinks that's irrelevant. The base loves Rush Limbaugh; he goes out of his way to tell them they need the non-Rush crowd. The base is pretty much fed up with being lectured to about civility; he sounds like the No Labels dream candidate in touting civility (almost an anti-conservative buzzword at this point). The base wants committed conservatives; he warns against the danger of ideological purity. In fact some might be put off by the analogy to terrorists: "Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers." Yowser. And this sounded like a man already willing to negotiate tax increases with the Democrats:
Change of the dimension we need requires a coalition of a dimension no one has recently assembled. And, unless you disbelieve what the arithmetic of disaster is telling us, time is very short.
Here I wish to be very plainspoken: It is up to us to show, specifically, the best way back to greatness, and to argue for it with all the passion of our patriotism. But, should the best way be blocked, while the enemy draws nearer, then someone will need to find the second best way. Or the third, because the nation's survival requires it.
The speech played well with wonkish Beltway pundits and libertarians who can't bring themselves to take Ron Paul seriously. But is he the latest Fred Thompson, a dreamy fiscal conservative who can't be bothered to vigorously contest for the nomination? Moreover, with world crises constantly intruding he runs the risk of appearing, as Obama often does, uninterested in or wary of devoting attention to anything but his domestic priorities. (Unlike every other candidate, he laid out no national security vision.)
In the speeches that preceded him on Friday, one could see, to one degree or another, each candidate try to set up the justification for his run. Daniels didn't do that; in fact he gave a rather apolitical speech. That's either a clever political tactic or a sign he's not willing to do what it takes to capture the presidency. We'll find out which it is in the weeks ahead.
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