Earlier in this campaign cycle, feature stories in the conservative Weekly Standard was the kiss, if not of death, then of serious political injury, for GOP presidential contenders. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour got tangled up on the race issue. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels made the now infamous “social truce” gaffe. But now it’s a liberal publication that is likely to give Daniels’s presidential boosters fits.
The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg explains that Daniels didn’t go to the Tea Partyers or to the National Rifle Association for a testing-the-waters confab. Instead, he went to Manhattan:
On Tuesday, at the Gilded Age Upper East Side mansion that houses the nascent Bloomberg View, Daniels lunched with a baker’s dozen of journo-pundits ranging politics-wise from rightish (Peggy Noonan, Ramesh Ponnuru) and leftish (Michael Kinsley, Josh Marshall) to neitherish (Mark Halperin), and outlet-wise from mass market (George Stephanopoulos) to niche market (me). Afterward, the informal consensus of the leftish contingent was summed up in this exchange:
“If we have to have a Republican…”
“…this one seems like he’d be better than the others.”
That’d be strike one. Don’t expect “favorite of New York liberal elites” to make it into a Daniels ad. (Notice that in the group only National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru could be considered a movement conservative.)
But it gets worse.
Strike two: Liberals are comforted by the notion that he is “if not a one-issue candidate, certainly a one-theme candidate” and is more than happy to take the meat ax to defense spending. Why, sort of a penny-pinching Obama!
And then there is this:
On foreign policy, he said that he’s a “water’s edge” kind of guy. He is sure that the President is in a position to know a lot more about what’s needed in Afghanistan than he is. He said he didn’t think Obama had “made the case” for the Libya intervention, though this doesn’t mean there is no case. Pressed to say something critical about Obama’s foreign policy, he said that he was “uncomfortable” with the President’s “apology tours.” But he didn’t look comfortable saying it.
Jamie Rubin asked him a clever question, right out of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”: if he had just one phone call to make about some foreign policy issue and he could call either Richard Lugar or John McCain, which would it be? After a little hemming and hawing, he said that he is “always comfortable” talking with Lugar. Though of course he respects McCain, too, he hastened to add. Maybe he was just being nice about his state’s senior senator, but I hope he was expressing a preference for diplomacy (Lugar’s M.O.) over warmongering (McCain’s).
That’d be strike three. Relying on the Senate Republican most despised by the conservative base (who’s sure to be primaried) and who has run interference for President Obama on foreign policy issues such as START and a Russian reset will set alarm bells ringing on the right. If personnel is policy, then a Daniels administration would seem to be to the left of George H.W. Bush.
Unfortunately, for Daniels, the portrait of the sort of Republican squish whom the Tea Party has come to regard with contempt may have more staying power than his two D.C. appearances on Wednesday.
His outing at the American Enterprise Institute got high marks for education reform wonkery. Although his lack of charisma and apparent allergy toward developing expertise on foreign policy were noted as well.
Last night Daniels also received an award from the Arab American Institute, a virulently anti-Israel outfit led by one of the prime apologists for Israel’s foes, James Zogby. What was interesting about the speech is that Daniels finally voiced something approaching a personal take on foreign policy. Politico reports:
Mitch Daniels drew extensively on his Syrian heritage in accepting an award from an Arab-American group Wednesday night, connecting his own family’s journey to the United States with the uprisings unfolding in his ancestral homeland and elsewhere in the Arab world.
“There have been the same stirrings, same yearnings for freedom that have busted loose elsewhere,” the Indiana governor said during his second public appearance of the day in Washington. “May Syria and all the lands near it soon become places of peace, and freedom and self-determination.”
Unlike the skepticism he has expressed about the extent of America’s international commitments, Daniels sounded as though we have a stake in the outcome of the Middle East revolutions: “Now I am so proud that brave Syrians have stepped forward, as their Egyptian and Tunisian and other counterparts have — and against, apparently, brutal threats and repressions — have stood up for the right to dream.”
This does raise the questions as to what Daniels would do to aid the brave Syrians and why he has had nothing whatsoever to say about the Arab Spring before last night. But it’s a start.
Or maybe it’s not. Daniels seems both temperamentally and, to a degree, ideologically unsuited for a Republican presidential primary. He has to convince the hard core conservatives that he has the fire in the belly, that he will hew to the conservative line once elected and that he’s not interested in garnering the goodwill of the Georgetown cocktail set. Does that sound like an easy sell? Not really.