By Cheri Jacobus - 05/19/11 10:27 PM EDT
A potential political rock star in the making, he is close to being known by a first name only, much like Cher, Madonna, Mitt or Newt.
But potential GOP presidential candidate and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels could swiftly become a household name if he jumps into the race for the party’s nod. For now, he seems content to keep us all waiting. Many of us cheerfully do so, complete with bated breath. My early take is that Mitch Daniels is the rare political candidate who looks better and better the more he comes into focus, rather than forcing us to reluctantly accept major flaws upon closer inspection. I think — I hope — I’ve got the prognosticator chops to make this call even before the hat gets tossed into the ring.
To be clear, this is not an endorsement. Texas Gov. Rick Perry may well join the race and be equally intriguing, and there are other stars. While pretend candidates like Donald Trump have been lapping up press attention, it was due only to the dearth of serious grown-ups in the race or in the wings. The media needed cartoons with which to entertain themselves while waiting for the marquee names. But now the serious candidates are, one by one, claiming or relinquishing their spots on the GOP bench. June 13 is a date to circle on the calendar — the GOP debate in New Hampshire. June 16 is the all-important Republican Leadership Conference, and on July 23 the Iowa GOP will finalize the ballot for the Aug. 13 straw poll.
Mitch Daniels has a legislative record that sings to Republicans and independents. As governor of Indiana, he has slashed spending, balanced budgets and cut the rate of growth of the budget by more than half. He capped property taxes, enacted a school voucher program, defunded Planned Parenthood, lowered corporate tax rates and removed the requirement that forces state employees to pay union dues. He also limited collective bargaining for teachers, saving more precious tax dollars, instituted merit pay for teachers and cracked down on employers hiring illegal aliens. As Office of Management and Budget chief under President George W. Bush, he gained foreign policy credentials as a member of the National Security Council, in addition to his experience as top adviser to Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and former President Reagan.
Despite a somewhat moderate persona, he ventured into the belly of the beast in February and delivered a well-received, substantive speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Heavy on substance, Daniels has already proven he can fix a broken government. If the country is ready to pay attention to this clear contrast to President Obama and establish more serious criteria for political rock stars, Mitch Daniels will gain momentum.
Ironically, his so-called “marital woes” might lend a degree of depth and texture to his image that could prove valuable and humanizing. Indeed, while most candidates with his low-ish level of name ID seem flat and one-dimensional, Daniels is a multi-dimensional man. Those with near-100 percent name ID have accumulated personal baggage that’s nearly impossible to shed. That Daniels’s wife took an apparent three-year “sabbatical” from the marriage in the early 1990s to marry another man while Mitch Daniels raised their four daughters is an uncomfortable fact. But they reunited and remarried, thus preserving the family. An embarrassing talking point for Mrs. Daniels, but a positive point for the governor, who, like so many in government, sports a bio page that reads more like the U.S. tax code than a Harlequin romance. However, once those personal life blanks are filled in, Mitch Daniels is romantic, strong, Father of the Year material, all rolled into one. While he doesn’t have the leading-man features of a Romney, Perry or Pawlenty, Daniels’s story more resembles a Lifetime Movie Channel offering than the life of a Midwestern politician.
Most notably a wonkish, somewhat boring but solid, milquetoast-esque public servant, but with a spot-on résumé, Mitch Daniels now has some color woven in with the beiges and the grays — and not in the Arnold Schwarzenegger-, John Edwards-sleazy, stomach-turning kind of way. The “ick” factor appears to be absent.
If Daniels decides to enter the contest, he will bring a serious focus to the issues where he has proven successes, and where Obama has failed. It would be a good fight.
Jacobus, president of Capitol Strategies PR, has managed congressional campaigns, worked on Capitol Hill and is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. She appears on CNN, MSNBC and FOX News as a GOP strategist.