Ruth Marcus
Columnist May 12, 2011

I hope Mitch Daniels runs for president.

Let me go further: I hope he wins the Republican nomination.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

I can’t imagine voting for him.

But Daniels’s presence would improve the 2012 campaign. He’d make Barack Obama a better candidate.

The current Republican field runs the gamut from flawed to laughable. The least flawed is former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, but just being the guy who’s left after all the other candidates are crossed off for one reason or another isn’t the strongest claim to lead your party.

Daniels, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, current governor of Indiana, is the un-Romney. Unlike former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, whose only core conviction seems to be that he ought to be president, Daniels has a set and stable worldview.

He is the un-Trump — indeed, the un-Newt. Bluster and bravado are not words that come to mind when you meet Daniels. Short and balding, he has the air of an accountant at a midsized manufacturing firm.

Unlike developer Donald Trump and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, with six wives between them, Daniels has one wife — twice. I don’t know what happened when Cheri Daniels left Mitch, moved to California and married another man (she returned a few years later), but any father who managed to cope single-handedly with four daughters gets credit in my book.

And any husband who makes it clear that his wife has a, maybe the, deciding voice in whether to launch a presidential campaign gets even more Marcus points.

I have a soft spot for OMB directors. The job offers a broad perspective on the operations of the federal government and departments’ competing claims for funding. The OMB director knows where the fat is — and the political forces that prevent it from being cut.

I have an even softer spot for governors. Executive experience isn’t essential to being chief executive, but it helps. Dealing with recalcitrant state legislatures or sluggish state bureaucracies is good seasoning for the national stage. In addition, any president has to grapple with issues of federalism; the current fiscal pressures on states make having occupied the governor’s mansion an even more valuable perspective.

But the real appeal of a Daniels candidacy is that I believe he is serious about reducing the debt and realistic about what it will take to achieve that, as a matter of both substance and politics.

Yes, Daniels as OMB director from 2001 to 2003 oversaw the federal budget’s stomach-churning plunge from surplus to deficit. But in Indiana, where he was actually in charge, Daniels’s performance reflected the reverse: The state went from a $200 million deficit to a $1.3 billion surplus and earned its first AAA bond rating.

In a rigid GOP world of no-new-taxes ideologues, Daniels actually proposed a temporary tax increase to help close the state’s budget gap. He created a health-care plan for uninsured residents not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid — and paid for it in part with higher tobacco taxes. He believes in limited government but implemented all-day kindergarten and pressed for new spending on infrastructure.

Most fundamentally, Daniels understands that compromise is a sign of wisdom, not weakness. “Purity in martyrdom,” he told the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year, “is for suicide bombers.”

The true believers weren’t happy with that — or with Daniels’s earlier comments, to the Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson, that the next president “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We’re going to just have to agree to get along for a little while.”

Let me be clear: I’m not eager to see President Daniels — especially President Daniels with a Republican House and Senate. Consider the legislation he just signed: restricting abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Cutting off government funding from Planned Parenthood clinics in the state — and at the risk of losing $4 million a year in federal family planning money. Denying in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. Barring local governments from enacting most gun-control laws.

If that’s a truce on social issues, it’s scary to imagine what war would look like.

But candidate Daniels would press President Obama to sharpen his focus on getting the debt under control, and to spell out more clearly how that will be accomplished. He would be an especially worthy opponent — even if I flinch at the thought that he might succeed.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com