Mitch Daniels: Republican Revolutionary
Mitch Daniels doesn't look like a revolutionary.
Short and balding, he looks exactly like what he was earlier this decade: the head of the Office of Management and Budget in the Bush administration.
But, ever since Daniels hopped in a car in 2003 to return to his native Indiana and run for governor, something changed.
Daniels demonstrated a populist knack largely lacking in the national party hierarchy -- he toured the state in an RV, stayed in the homes of Hoosiers rather than at hotels, and even created his own reality TV series known as MitchTV in which he invited a film crew to tape his interactions with the people of the state.
"There is a presumption that Republicans are not connected and not caring about the problems of regular people," said Daniels, sipping on a Budweiser, during a recent interview with the Fix. "We had to establish ourselves."
Two victories later -- the second coming in a year that President Obama carried Indiana --- and Daniels is one of the GOP's few success stories.
Daniels entered the 2008 election as a major Democratic target, the result of several controversial decisions -- including the leasing of the Indiana toll road to a private company and putting Indiana on daylight savings time (not kidding) -- that pulled down his approval ratings among Indiana voters.
But Daniels spent his year-long state tour touting the promises on which he had delivered during his first term. "We are people who do what we say," said Daniels, explaining the underlying strategy of that campaign. In a word? "Authenticity," said Daniels.
And so, in a year where President Obama swept to a 192-electoral-vote victory on the idea of hope and change, Daniels ran on an almost identical platform, painting himself and the Indiana GOP more broadly as the reformers and Democrats as the old guard. "We were the party of purpose," said Daniels.
Voters responded, handing Daniels a second term by a whopping 18 points over former Rep. Jill Long Thompson (D) who struggled to find cracks in the Daniels's armor throughout the race.
What lessons can the national GOP -- still struggling to find its identity and leaders after two devastating elections cycles -- take from what Daniels did?
First, that Republicans must regain the high ground as the party of new ideas. "We need to be conceiving ideas all the time, not just sit there and hold office," said Daniels.
Second, that reflexive partisanship and name-calling rarely brings about those ideas and solutions. Daniels insisted that during his five years in the governor's mansion he has not said the word "Democratic" more than three times and has never uttered the words "liberal" or "conservative."
Third, and this goes to Daniels's populist streak, "use your own words." Daniels staked his political career on convincing voters that he was not a consultant-driven phenomenon -- he wrote his own ads -- nor was he angling for some other office.
For all of Daniels's success, his influence nationally has been somewhat circumscribed. He recounted that he had advocated his approach to politics to other GOP candidates with "no success at all" and his insistence that he will never again run for office -- a pledge he made in his last TV ad of 2008 -- has limited the amount of national face time he both seeks and is offered.
Daniels spoke to the House Republican Conference earlier this year -- at the behest of fellow Hoosier Mike Pence -- and recently penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal opposing the planned cap and trade system being proposed by the Obama administration.
But, for someone with his résumé -- former Bush administration official, two-term midwestern governor -- Daniels doesn't get nearly the amount of attention others in his shoes might.
And, oddly, for a politician, that seems ok with him.
"I am going to stick to Indiana," said Daniels of his political future. "I would like to finish this job and have the people of our state be less cynical than they were before."
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