Some presidential candidates decide to run for the White House and only then try to figure out their message. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is the opposite. He knows what he wants to say; he's just not sure whether he will run.
By the time Daniels (R) addressed the American Conservative Union's annual Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday night, many of the journalists and the bloggers were gone. By then the audience had heard from a procession of prospective GOP 2012 presidential candidates: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, John Thune, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul among them.
Most of the previous speakers offered the crowd varying portions of red meat - and attacks on President Obama - designed to evoke applause. Daniels instead gave it a sobering speech on a sobering topic. He talked about what he called the "new red menace," the sea of red ink in Washington that he argued is the greatest threat to the United States' future.
Daniels is trying to rouse his party, and then perhaps the whole country, to confront this looming problem. Other speakers at the conference have discussed the deficit and debt. Others have talked about the importance of reducing spending. But none has done it with as much power and seriousness as Daniels, who described the threat in apocalyptic terms.
"We face an enemy, lethal to liberty, and even more implacable than those America has defeated before," he said. "We cannot deter it; there is no countervailing danger we can pose. We cannot negotiate with it, any more than with an iceberg or a Great White."
He argued that Social Security and Medicare would require dramatic changes for the generations not yet enrolled - changes that would mean lower benefits for at least some people. "These programs should reserve their funds for those most in need of them," he said. "They should be updated to catch up to Americans' increasing longevity and good health. They should protect benefits against inflation but not overprotect them."
Medicare, he argued, should give older Americans more choice in how to select their health-care coverage, "entrusting and empowering citizens to choose their own insurance and, inevitably, pay for more of their routine care like the discerning, autonomous customers we know them to be."
Daniels said an "obese federal government" needs bariatric surgery, not just behavior modification. He dismissed the focus in Washington on eliminating earmarks as necessary but wholly inadequate - "a trifle," he called it. "Talking much more about [earmarks] or 'waste, fraud and abuse' trivializes what needs to be done and misleads our fellow citizens to believe that easy answers are available to us," he said.
He also argued that solving the debt and deficit issue will require policies to spur economic growth, and here he laid out policies long favored by conservatives: a flatter tax system, fewer regulations and an energy policy geared toward more domestic production.
The Indiana governor had another message for his party. "It is up to us to show, specifically, the best way back to greatness and to argue for it with all the passion of our patriotism," he said. "But should the best way be blocked, while the enemy draws nearer, then someone will need to find the second-best way. Or the third, because the nation's survival requires it."
That was a long way of saying that Republicans must be prepared to jettison purity in exchange for getting things done and that the battle he describes will require the support of independents and even some Democratic voters.
He had still more advice for his party. Republicans, he said, must show heart to those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder; distinguish between skepticism about big government and contempt for all government; and avoid the kind of overheated rhetoric that is commonplace in politics today. Republicans, he said, will have more success the better they are liked.
A host of questions would confront Daniels should he run for president. He was, after all, budget director for former president George W. Bush, whose administration is blamed by many conservatives for allowing spending to grow dramatically. How will he explain that?
He has yet to put specifics behind his vision of changing the entitlements programs, and surely they will be controversial. Who would see their benefits cut most? How much more would senior citizens pay for their health care?
Daniels's focus on fiscal issues carries other risks. He has riled social conservatives for suggesting that the deficit problems are so dire they require a so-called truce in the culture wars. His speech Friday did not touch on foreign policy or the threat from Islamic radicalism, which many Americans see as every bit as dangerous to the country's future as red ink. For now, he is running mostly on one leg of the conservative coalition's three-legged stool.
If he ran, Daniels probably would compete for space with other GOP governors, including an old pal, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who spoke at the conference Saturday morning. Many Republicans wonder whether there is room in the race for both Barbour and Daniels. Barbour, too, called for restraint in spending and economic policies that are friendly to business and the energy industry. But the difference in tone and emphasis between his speech and Daniels's was striking.
Daniels is aware that his approach could entail difficulties but wants to think the country is ready for his message. "If this strikes you as a project of unusual ambition, given the state of modern politics, you are right," he said Friday. "If it strikes you as too bold for our fellow Americans to embrace, I believe you are wrong." To succeed, he said, would require assembling the kind of coalition "of a dimension no one has recently assembled." He is certainly right about that.
Daniels will not decide about running until spring. He has said he has a host of issues to resolve, among them whether his family would support the rigors of a campaign. But another question he must ask and answer is: Can he keep sounding the alarm about the issue that drives him now if he is not in the presidential arena?