People who know Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels (R) say that he has not yet decided whether to seek the 2012 GOP Presidential nomination. One senses his reluctance derives from personal considerations; the invasion of his family’s privacy, the disruption of their normalcy, the loneliness of the long distance run. If there was someone else out there who was politically capable and carried the same message, one suspects he or she would already have Governor Daniels’ endorsement.
But there isn’t. The other Republican presidential candidates are positioning themselves on a variety of issues, but they’re not addressing the only issue that matters. Simply put, that issue is the reckoning (all this public debt, at every level of governance) and the restructuring (what we’re going to have to do about it). As a friend said to me the other day, “it’s scary how disconnected politics is from reality. It’s like they’re running for president in 1968 and not talking about Vietnam and the cities on fire. How can anyone run for president in 2012 and not talk about debt all the time?”
That we are on the verge of a major fiscal crisis is a given amongst virtually every serious (and sentient) policy-maker and opinion leader in America. Former Bush Administration State Department official Richard Haass and former Clinton Administration Treasury official Roger Altman recently wrote about the imminent danger of US fiscal collapse in Foreign Affairs magazine. Former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin raised a similar alarm in the pages of the Financial Times. Mr. Rubin’s piece followed hard on the heels of the President’s Deficit Commission report, which made the exact same argument and offered a number of policy proposals that might begin the process of turning things around.
This is not rocket science. The reckoning of all this debt requires restructuring. If US political leaders are incapable of fashioning a restructuring plan, the markets will dictate terms. Those terms will be deeply distasteful to wide swaths of the electorate and the possibility of social unrest will be, as they say, in play. Or as Deficit Commission Co-Chairman Bowles told the Christian Science Monitor, “The only incentive for elected people to do this is it has to be done…. If we stay on automatic pilot, the choices will be made for us. The markets will [punish US bonds]: They will be swift, they will be severe. This country will never be the same…. It won’t be the old slippery-slope stuff we read about: It will be very swift and dramatic like in Greece or Ireland or Portugal or Spain.”
Gov. Daniels has been on the front lines of dealing with state and municipal debt in his role as governor of Indiana. By all accounts, he has managed his state’s fiscal crisis decisively. But he has no illusions that the worst is over. The debt to his left is consuming Illinois. The debt above him is crushing Michigan. The debt to his right is crushing Ohio. Nationally, his view is, if anything, even darker. As he told the New York Times:
“I start from a premise that not everyone would agree with, I guess. I believe the American experiment is in mortal peril because of the debt we have coming….This is more frightening than even the Soviet nuclear threat, which would have been more horrible. If we go broke, we’ll still be alive, but the probability was so small. In this case, the damage, the catastrophe, will be very, very severe, and the probability (that catastrophe will occur, absent corrective action), I think, sadly. is very high.”
Last Friday night, Gov. Daniels spoke to the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Washington, DC. He gave the best speech of his political career and the most important speech of the 2012 campaign to date. He addressed the reckoning/restructuring head on. And he addressed it with (by Washington political standards) refreshing candor.
You can read the whole speech by clicking here. He speaks to all five parts of the Federal budget — pensions, health care, national defence, interest on the debt and all other discretionary spending. He doesn’t pretend that the US can restructure its finances without restructuring all five. He argues that the throw weight of this issue is so profound, that the Republican Party (and the country) must put aside all other matters and focus all of its attention on fixing this fiscal disaster.
If Gov. Daniels truly believes this, and everyone who knows him says that he does, then he has no choice but to run for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. To not do so would be, by his own logic, an abdication of political responsibility. So he’s off and running, if he believes what he says.
The question is whether his message will resonate with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, the traditional launching pad of long-shot candidacies. As it happens, those are two pretty good places to start. Iowa Republicans are a fiscally conservative lot. New Hampshire Republicans and Independents are famously flinty. Daniels’ “austerity” message will find an audience in both states. If the social conservative vote gets fracked by too many “social conservative” candidacies (think: Palin, Huckabee, Santorum, Pawlenty, Bachmann, etc), Daniels can win the Iowa caucuses with 30 per cent of the vote. New Hampshire, which follows a week later, allows “cross-over” independents to vote in the GOP primary. That gives Daniels some room to grow; the chance to enlist independents in his cause.
It’s a long shot, for sure. But it’s a shot. And unlike the others, Gov. Daniels won’t have to wake up every morning, imagining who he is that day. He has the intellectual framework for both a primary and a general election campaign. He knows what he’s doing. And what he is saying is, inarguably, true.
To some degree, everyone has a stake in his success. Because if Gov. Daniels is even half-right about what ails us, his defeat will be everyone’s defeat. The premise of the Daniels campaign is that there is still time to fix our problems and that we can do it if we start by voting to do just that. That’s a rather more compelling value proposition than, say, voting for Sarah Palin’s Facebook postings.