As Daniels considers White House run, supporters venerate, critics unload

Mitch Daniels is cheap.

The Indiana governor and former Office of Management and Budget director for President George W. Bush who is now spoken of as the favorite 2012 candidate of the Washington elite used a gardening glove when he first learned to play golf, unwilling to spend the money for a real golf glove.

“He had the same raincoat, which I always thought was too short for him, for about 20 years,” a former aide said, recalling another tale of Daniels’ frugality.

“He doesn’t like to spend his money, and he doesn’t like to spend the people’s money,” Al Hubbard, who headed up the National Economic Council during Bush’s second term and is considered part of Daniels’ inner circle, explained.

That stinginess, which may seem extreme in his personal life, is what has prompted some to call for Daniels to run for the Republican nomination for president, in the hopes that he will apply that same level of parsimony to the federal budget. Daniels said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he has agreed to “consider” the possibility of a run.

Talk to too many people about Daniels and you start to wonder if you’ve been lied to all your life about how many hours there are in a day. Governor Daniels writes his own speeches and designs his own campaign ads. Described as in phenomenal shape, he is an avid runner and golfer, as well as a sports fan. He seems to stay in touch with just about everyone he meets, from old colleagues at Eli Lilly and the Hudson Institute, to Bush administration officials, to people he met on the road — and many of them will tell you just how surprisingly easy it is to get on his schedule. He’s also known as a policy wonk, who can wrap his head around an issue with surprising speed and ease.

Neil Pickett, who worked with Daniels at the Hudson Institute, of which Daniels was president and CEO from 1987 to 1990, and later served as senior policy director during Daniels’ first term has governor, called Daniels extremely intelligent, the first quality most people mention when speaking about the governor.

“I worked for Herman Kahn — he’s a futurist who founded the Hudson institute. He’s generally thought of as one of the smartest people ever in the world,” Pickett said. “Nobody in my mind equals Herman Kahn. But Mitch Daniels is pretty darn close.”

“He is both quantitatively, not just literate but expert, and one of the most articulate and effective communicators, especially in writing, that I’ve ever seen,” Pickett continued.

But he was initially skeptical that Daniels would be successful in politics. As a candidate, the former colleague expected Daniels would be “maybe a little stiff and not effective.”

“That proved to be absolutely wrong,” he said. “He’s an incredibly effective retail politician.”

As governor, Daniels has continued to earn the praise of colleagues and staffers.

“He’s just remarkable in that he can write speeches like Peggy Noonan writes speeches, create ads like Roger Ailes creates ads, and he knows policy as well as any policy nerd around,” said Hubbard.

“What was really helpful for me was how quick of a study he was on things that he frankly didn’t know much about before talking them through,” said Ryan Kitchell, a part of Daniels’ administration for six years, first as public finance director for two and a half years, and then as OMB director. “You can imagine – anyone at that level – it’s hard to get hours and hours of his time to go through stuff.”

“He doesn’t need much help,” said Pickett, laughing. “When you can’t do anything better than he does, it’s kind of intimidating to try to work for him.”

“He’s like the chess player that’s always 12 moves ahead of you,” said Pete Seat, communications director for the Indiana Republican Party. “The moves that he makes may not make sense in today’s context, or tomorrow’s context, but six months down the road, you go ‘holy moly, this guy knew what he was talking about.’”