Sometimes appearances can be deceiving. This is no more obvious than when assessing Mitch Daniels. The popular governor of Indiana may be short on hair and height, but he could well be the hero conservatives and Tea Partiers have been searching for.
He doesn’t have the theatrical flair and rock star appeal of Sarah Palin. Nor does he possess the leading man looks of Mitt Romney. But what he does have is an extensive resume accompanied by a popular and imaginative tenure as Indiana’s governor.
Daniels has occupied a smorgasbord of political and private sector positions: Senate staffer, political aide in the Reagan White House, head of a think tank, executive of a major pharmaceutical company, and OMB director in the early years of the Bush administration. His tenure as governor of Indiana has been filled with plenty of goodies for conservatives to gush over. He cut Indiana’s budget significantly, privatized state roads and services, and reformed the state’s healthcare system. Daniels has tried to lay the blueprint for innovative governance by thinking big while spending small.
The combination of his glossy resume and frugal governing record has turned Daniels into a hot commodity on the insider circuit, with some encouraging him to think long and hard about jumping into the presidential fray. By the time 2012 rolls around, the country may be exhausted by the youthful inexperience of the Obama years and could be hungry for an energetic executive with experience in turning things around.
Daniels remains lukewarm on the idea of running for president, though overtures in recent months suggest that he is seriously considering it. And like the cadre of other Republican contenders, Daniels is not without organizational challenges or political flaws. He’s not exactly a heavy presence in any of the polls and his lack of name ID outside the Hoosier State would require a strong dose of fire-in-the-belly campaigning, a potentially daunting task for someone whose heart isn’t fully invested in the game. On policy, he’s already irked fiscal and social conservatives due to his open ruminations about the possibility of raising taxes and his lax approach on social issues. Some also wonder if his modest and affable demeanor is in sync with the more riled up, us-against-them passions of the Tea Party movement.
Upon closer examination, however, Daniels quite possibly captures the mood and sentiment of Tea Partiers better than anyone else. Issues of debt and spending seem to consume his political being and would clearly serve as the driving force behind any presidential candidacy. And as social and foreign policy issues take a back seat to more pressing domestic concerns, Daniels and the Tea Party share a strong common bond: their focus on preventing the country from going into a terminal condition as a result of its excessive spending. In interview after interview, Daniels is adamant in pressing his point home. “Any fair reading of the nation’s balance sheet suggests we’re in a dangerous moment,” he explained to the conservative magazine the American Spectator last month. “If we don’t act soon, we don’t have a prayer.” The rhetoric may have a sky-is-falling pitch to it, but Tea Partiers share similar sentiments.
Speaking the language of Tea Partiers will certainly help Daniels if he decides to pursue his party’s nomination. He may not be thinking much about the culture wars, but his laser-like focus and everything-is-on-the-table talk about the chief issues on everyone’s mind is sure to get him a look or two from conservatives looking for a leader who is strong enough to alter the country’s fiscal habits.
Aaron Guerrero is a 2009 UC Davis graduate who majored in political science and minored in history. He formerly interned for Rep. Dan Lungren and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is a freelance writer.