The Monday Fix: Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a GOP Leader by Example
In a party looking for new leaders, Mitch Daniels would not rate as an obvious pick.
Short and balding, Indiana's Republican governor looks like a policy wonk -- exactly what he was earlier this decade, when he was the head of the Office of Management and Budget in the Bush administration.
But once Daniels hopped in a car in 2003 to return to his home state and run for governor, something changed. He began to demonstrate a populist knack largely lacking in the national party hierarchy. He toured the state in an RV, stayed in the homes of Hoosiers rather than at hotels, and even created his own reality television series, "MitchTV," in which he invited a film crew to record his interactions with the people of the state.
"There is a presumption that Republicans are not connected and not caring about the problems of regular people," Daniels, sipping on a Budweiser, said in a recent interview with the Fix. "We had to establish ourselves."
Two victories for Daniels later -- the second coming in a year when President Obama carried Indiana -- the governor is one of the GOP's few success stories. What lessons can the national Republican Party, still struggling to find its identity and leaders after two devastating election cycles, take from what Daniels did?
First, Republicans must regain the high ground as the party of new ideas. "We need to be conceiving ideas all the time, not just sit there and hold office," Daniels said.
Second, reflexive partisanship and name-calling rarely bring about those ideas and solutions. Daniels insisted that, during his five years in the governor's mansion, he has not said the word "Democratic" more than three times and has never uttered the words "liberal" or "conservative."
Third -- and this one goes to Daniels's populist streak -- "use your own words." Daniels staked his political career on convincing voters that he was not a consultant-driven phenomenon (he wrote his own ads), nor was he angling for another office.
For all of Daniels's success, his influence nationally has been somewhat circumscribed. He has advocated his approach to other GOP candidates with "no success at all," he says. Meanwhile, his insistence that he will never again run for office -- a pledge he made in his last TV ad of 2008 -- has limited the amount of national face time he both seeks and is offered.
Oddly, for a politician, that seems okay with him. "I am going to stick to Indiana," Daniels said of his political future. "I would like to finish this job and have the people of our state be less cynical than they were before."
Sen. Arlen Specter's party switch and the likely victory by Al Franken in Minnesota mean that Democrats will almost certainly head into the 2010 election controlling 60 seats in the Senate.
How much higher can they go? The playing field is, once again, tilted in their favor, with five GOP senators retiring and 19 Republican seats up for election, one more than for the Democrats.