Dana Milbank
Dana Milbank
Opinion Writer

Mitch Daniels, an alternative to scary

Mitch Daniels, the conservative intelligentsia’s choice for president in 2012, came to Washington on Wednesday to give a speech on education policy to a conservative think tank. But not 10 minutes into his address, he took an unexpected turn.

“Most of what I’ve talked about so far, and much of what I will, is strongly supported by the Obama administration,” the Republican governor of Indiana told the standing-room-only crowd at the American Enterprise Institute. “I salute the president, Secretary [Arne] Duncan. They are right about these things.”

Dana Milbank

Dana Milbank writes a regular column on politics.

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Off-message alert! One of the right-minded thinkers in the room rose to give Daniels a second chance to criticize Obama. The governor declined. “I really do want to salute and commend — and I’ve done it over and over — the president, Secretary Duncan, for a lot of leadership in this area,” he affirmed. “There is a federal role” in education, he argued. “I believe in national standards.”

It may sound jarring these days to hear any conservative say anything nice about the Obama administration; Daniels also cheered the president’s “well-done, well-handled” dispatching of Osama bin Laden.

But the Indiana governor is following a well-written playbook. A dozen years ago, George W. Bush (for whom Daniels later worked as White House budget director) campaigned for the GOP presidential nomination as a different kind of Republican, a “compassionate conservative” motivated principally by concern for poor black kids and public schools.

In the end, most of that turned out to be hooey; Bush was very much a conventional conservative. Daniels, likewise, is no bleeding heart — but he is demonstrating himself to be a shrewd tactician. At a time when Republican voters are disenchanted with their presidential choices, and the existing candidates are marginalizing themselves by campaigning on abortion, homosexuality and birth certificates, not-yet-candidate Daniels looks like a grown-up.

Daniels isn’t nearly as natural a politician as Bush (he’s about 5-foot-4, with a comb-over), and he’s much more of an intellectual (his yawn-inducing talk explored “administrative flexibility” and “state assessment tests”). Surely, some of his wonkish appeal would wear off once opponents began to portray him as the old drug-industry executive he is.

But so far, the governor is doing well differentiating himself from the Republican field — and in the process portraying himself to moderates as a non-threatening choice.

Daniels, in the AEI speech, said teacher ratings would be based on the question “Did the children grow?” — an echo of Bush’s famous question “Is our children learning?” Like Bush, Daniels spoke of the need to help “the kids from the most vulnerable homes.”

In a rebuke of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), Daniels told the audience that “collective bargaining has its place, always will.” He spoke of “social justice” — a verboten phrase among some conservatives — and he softened his support for private-school vouchers by arguing that children must have two semesters in public school to be eligible.

Daniels boasted that he increased education spending in Indiana as part of his plan for extending full-day kindergarten to all 5-year-olds. “Indiana is number one in America in share of the state budget committed to education,” he claimed.

Democrats and teacher unions, of course, would beg to differ with Daniels’s characterization of his policies. But the presentation to the conservative elite was more about packaging: He is the disarming alternative to the GOP’s frightful field.

He began with corny humor (“first thing y’all need to know is you are here under false pretenses: I just came for a meal”) and segued into self-deprecation (“I do what lazy men do and show you a slide show”). He baffled the crowd with a one-liner about the recently deceased inventor of the teleprompter. He told a borscht-belt joke about “Billy,” who wouldn’t get up for school until his mother reminded him, “You’re the principal.” He employed folksy phrases such as “the bee that got in my bonnet,” and he attempted an education metaphor using a high-jump style known as the “Fosbury Flop.”

The aw-shucks routine also helped Daniels deflect a question from NPR’s Mara Liasson about whether he could still enter the presidential race at this late stage. “The man said, ‘When I considers my opportunities I marvels at my self-restraint,’ ” he quipped, before calling it a “happy surprise” that the race has yet to take shape. “Unless you’re a political professional or running a bed-and-breakfast in New Hampshire, it’s a darn good thing,” Daniels said.

So funny, so folksy, and so friendly to the disadvantaged: It is eerily similar to how another Republican governor presented himself to America a dozen springs ago.

 
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