Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) seems poised to jump into the race. Politico reports that this excites some conservatives:
Top Republicans are increasingly convinced that President Barack Obama will be easily reelected if stronger GOP contenders do not emerge, and some are virtually begging Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels to add some excitement to the slow-starting nomination race. . . .
But interviews this week with longtime party activists and strategists made clear that many in the Republican establishment are unnerved by a field led by Mitt Romney, who could have trouble confronting Obama on health reform; Tim Pawlenty, who has yet to ignite excitement; Jon Huntsman, who may be too moderate to get the nomination; and Newt Gingrich, weighed down by personal baggage and a sense that he is a polarizing figure from the 1990s.
Let me start with the observation that the Republican establishment is usually the last place to find political smarts. It backed Charlie Crist over Marco Rubio for the Florida Senate race, if you recall. No doubt it will also rally around Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) against a conservative primary challenger. It is not always wrong, but it is not often in tune with the political base.
That said, the GOP presidential field could use some sprucing up. The question then is whether Daniels is the man to do it.
On the positive side, he’s been a successful governor, implemented health-care reform that doesn’t rely on forcing people to buy insurance they don’t want, has a strong education plan and has won two statewide elections. In other words, his track record is nearly as good as Tim Pawlenty’s. He is smart, articulate, good with facts and figures, and is, by any measure, a serious candidate. In his gubernatorial runs he proved to be a very effective, down-to-earth candidate that could relate to relatively non-ideological, middle-class voters, the very ones who will be up for grabs in 2012. He is solidly grounded in a limited-government perspective. He has been an outspoken opponent of cap-and-trade.
On the downside, he seems to have gone out of his way to needlessly antagonize social conservatives with his “truce” talk and anger hawks, by embracing defense cuts and suggesting America should do less in the world. He appears overly eager to seek the advice of and incur the approval of non-conservative elites. The prospect of Secretary of State Dick Lugar sends chills up the spine of many conservatives. According to many former Bush officials, he does not take input from anyone — subordinates, colleagues and certainly not critics. (The conviction that one is the “smartest man in the room” leads one to ignore important criticism and pile the miscues.) He has indicated his receptivity to a value-added tax. His tenure as George W. Bush’s OMB director may be a liability not a strength in this election. And finally, his tunnel vision on debt control, if adhered to in office, would wind up lacking focus on economic growth and sacrificing many other issues important to conservatives (e.g. judges, right-to-work).
In sum, Daniels would up the seriousness quotient in the race and pose a significant problem for Mitt Romney’s candidacy (why take a governor with RomneyCare baggage when you can get one without it?). But it’s not clear what his path to the nomination would be. Iowa is probably a non-starter for him, given the sentiments of Christian conservatives regarding his “truce.” In “no income tax” New Hampshire he’d have to defend criticism of his willingness to entertain tax hikes and then beat out Romney in perhaps the only early state he can win. South Carolina seems entirely out of reach. Not unlike Rudy Giuliani it is hard to see how he would gain early momentum, which is critical to securing the nomination.
Would Daniels be a positive addition to the race? With the current field, it’s hard to say he wouldn’t. Could he overcome his shortcomings? Perhaps. Would the Republican electorate prefer to have New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in the race? In a heartbeat.