Opening for Mitch Daniels

Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman both spent millions to win California’s 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary, but Whitman had deeper pockets and won. She was defeated in the general election by former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

Prior to the primary, I asked Poizner why he was so interested in spending so much of his own money to head a clearly dysfunctional government careening down the road to fiscal ruin and unable to curb the spending that every sane observer knows is the source of the state’s troubles.

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I have reflected on Poizner’s interesting analysis in the days since. He believes that when a state or country is about head over a cliff, people realize just how much trouble they are really in.

When that realizations hits, a window of opportunity opens up to allow serious consideration of fundamental reforms that couldn’t even be discussed seriously before.

Poizner argued that before that window opens, it doesn’t do much good to advance such reforms because old habits die hard and no one will listen. If one waits too long, on the other hand, it will be too late.

That conversation took place before Chris Christie was elected governor of New Jersey, opened the state’s books and realized that his state was way down that same road. Christie decided that he wasn’t going to let the Garden State go over the cliff on his watch and decided to take on those responsible for the disastrous conditions he found and make the changes needed to get

New Jersey back on track. As I watched the public’s reaction to Christie taking on the special interests, Poizner’s words came back to me.

Puerto Rico’s governor, Luis Fortuño, faced a similar crisis when he was elected in 2008. The day after he was sworn in, he flew to New York to meet with representatives of Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, who were preparing to re-rate Puerto Rico’s bonds as what they were rapidly becoming: junk. Puerto Rico, as it turned out, was carrying a heavier per-capita debt than California and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Like Christie, Fortuño acted, and acted quickly. Within a year he had cut spending by more than 20 percent and found that the public was with him. Once he had pared back spending, he cut taxes. Today Puerto Rico is growing economically and her bonds are once again considered a safe and stable investment.

Each of these men acted as they thought they had to under the circumstances, but the risk they took depended on whether their constituents had actually come to realize just how bad things were in New Jersey or Puerto Rico. They had to hope, in other words, that the window had opened. In both cases it had. When Fortuño was about to take the podium at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week, I said it was important to let those new to Washington know that leaders could act decisively and make the cuts needed to right the ship. He said, “No, it’s just as important to let them know you can do what you have to do and survive.”

Fortuño is right. I’m convinced that he and Christie and governors like Andrew Cuomo in New York would be acting as they are regardless of whether they would win the next election, but letting your fellow politicians know that political courage will be rewarded by voters when you do the right thing will help enable others to take similar steps before it is too late.

Most of those Republicans being talked about as interested in the chance to take on Barack Obama in 2012 talk about the national fiscal crisis, but few have been as explicit as Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who argues that we can no longer afford half-measures lest we risk the grand American experiment.

Like Christie, Fortuño and Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Daniels has turned his state around. As reflected in last week’s speech at CPAC, Daniels firmly believes it is time for drastic reforms at the national level. His solutions to the crisis he perceives make sense to those who believe the cliff is but a short distance down the road. If he’s interested in the presidency himself, however, the viability of a Daniels candidacy will depend almost exclusively on how many share that belief — or, in other words, whether Poizner’s window has opened.

Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental 
consulting firm.