Daniels is playing by his own rules

This is the 5th in a series of profiles of GOP presidential contenders.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is best known as the “truce” candidate in the crowded field of Republicans mulling a White House run.

It’s certainly not a term of endearment to many conservatives, though it could help him win the Republican presidential nomination.

ADVERTISEMENT
Daniels has called for the GOP to declare a truce on social issues in order to focus on the economy and the nation’s record debt.

Tony Perkins, who heads the Family Research Council, is one social-conservative activist who finds the prospect of Daniels as the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee unpalatable. But he admits it’s a possibility, even if Daniels alienates the social-conservative base of the party.

“In 2008, you had several candidates vying for that conservative vote, and then you had [Sen.] John McCain [R-Ariz.]. The others were in kind of a dogfight, and he survived,” Perkins said.

“Maybe that’s Daniels’s strategy. Maybe that’s why he’s making the comments he’s making. To try to take that John McCain approach. All the other candidates are talking [about social issues].”

Of course, it’s far from certain that Daniels will even run. But at 62, it might be now or never.

Daniels is not following the normal playbook for winning the Republican nomination. 

The two-term governor of Indiana has urged his party to “stop whining” about the Obama administration and offer alternative proposals instead. He celebrates his Arab-American heritage — his paternal grandparents emigrated from Syria to Western Pennsylvania — at a time when GOP members of Congress are holding hearings on Muslim “radicalization” in America.

He does have a powerful friend on the right in George Will. The conservative columnist wrote a piece earlier this year touting Daniels, and also introduced him at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). 

Will noted that the media has sought to define Daniels as a short, uncharismatic guy who rides a Harley-Davidson. 

There is far more to Daniels than that caricature, Will contends. He wrote that Daniels “has the credentials to counsel conservatives about the need to compromise in the interest of broadening the constituency for difficult reforms” and praised his “charisma of competence.”

Other players on the right, including the National Rifle Association’s David Keene; National Review’s Rich Lowry; and Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, have also praised Daniels’s approach. 

A recent National Journal Insiders Poll had Daniels as the potential GOP presidential candidate whose “stock has risen the most in the past few months.”

But it’s surprising to some that the diminutive governor is winning so many friends.

“This is the first guy I’ve seen make a success of being curt,” said Ed DeLaney, an Indiana state lawmaker long active in Democratic politics. “He doesn’t ever say you’re wrong because of X or Y. He just says that’s not part of the agenda.  

“That’s his personality,” said DeLaney. “He’s perfectly willing to accept your support on his terms.”

Daniels’s propensity to lock in on an issue is the trait of a good politician, according to Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.).

“He gets focused on an issue and he does the job,” Burton said. “One of the problems with a lot of politicians is they use the shotgun approach. They scatter and go all over the map. Mitch Daniels is focused. That’s what we need in Washington right now.”

His supporters tend to overlook Daniels’s personal hiccups, which would become campaign fodder if he decides to run. During his undergraduate years at Princeton University, Daniels was arrested for having what amounted to a couple shoeboxes’ worth of pot in his dorm room. In addition to the marijuana, Daniels and his roommates were charged with possession of LSD and prescription drugs without a prescription. He escaped serious charges and pleaded down to a $350 fine for “maintaining a common nuisance,” according to The Daily Princetonian.

He divorced, and then later remarried, his wife, Cheri Herman Daniels. The two, who have four daughters, split in the early 1990s, but reunited four years later. The governor usually explains their relationship by saying, “If you like happy endings, you’ll love our story.”

Cheri Daniels rarely speaks to the press. During her husband’s two bids for statewide office, she rarely appeared on the campaign trail. She has said repeatedly that their family is scared “to death” of him running for president, partly because of the intense scrutiny a campaign would invite into their private lives.

Those close to Daniels insist his future plans have everything to do with what’s happening in Indiana — he’s just trying to get through the next session of the State Legislature. 

“He’s trying to balance his concerns for the nation, and all these folks who say, ‘Your qualifications would be put to good use on the next level,’ with the job he was elected to do,” an adviser said on background to speak candidly about the governor.

Should Daniels decide to run, he could make cutting federal spending his signature issue — a popular stance in the age of the Tea Party’s protest movement. In his speech at CPAC in February, Daniels called the national debt the new “red menace,” but afterward resisted being drawn into a discussion of his potential candidacy. 

“I think this is the issue that I hope whoever represents our team will emphasize, because I think it is the single biggest immediate threat to the country,” Daniels told The Hill in a brief interview. 

Daniels clearly wouldn’t have trouble finding his way around Washington. During the better part of two decades in public service, he worked his way up to become Sen. Dick Lugar’s (R-Ind.) chief of staff, earning his boss’s admiration along the way. “I have great confidence in his ability,” said Lugar. “I’ve encouraged him to run [for president], and I continue to.”

Daniels also directed the National Republican Senatorial Committee and subsequently served as political director in Ronald Regan’s White House. 

Asked whether his résumé could form the basis of a 2012 candidacy, Daniels noted his experience outside of government. 

“I also practiced international business for a long time,” he said. “I may have learned as much there as I did during my two White House tours.”

Unlike former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), Daniels doesn’t have to worry about another presidential contender from his state, after Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said he wasn’t running. Pawlenty, meanwhile, must strategize for how to deal with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who is inching closer to a bid.

 After a stint as an executive for Eli Lilly and Co., the pharmaceutical manufacturer based in Indiana, Daniels returned to Washington in 2001 to serve as Bush’s budget director. Despite presiding over the explosion of the federal deficit, Daniels earned the nickname “The Blade” and angered many members of Congress with his bare-knuckle approach. 

 Some say that whether Daniels makes the leap into the presidential race will depend in no small part on Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s plans. The two worked together in the Reagan White House under Ed Rollins, who is now a party strategist. Daniels has gone so far as to say Barbour is the closest thing he has to a brother. 



“They formed that relationship when they were working for me, and it grew beyond that,” said Rollins. “They’ve remained very, very close allies.”

Daniels smiled at the thought of facing his old friend in the GOP presidential primary. Sure, they could both run, he said.

 “Absolutely we could,” he said before pausing. “You guys [in the media] would get more laughs than you’ve had for a while if we were both in there.”