Mitch Daniels tells CPAC to defeat the ‘new red menace’

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Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels took the CPAC stage Friday night with a brainy, intense speech that explained the debt crisis as the “new red menace” and challenged activists to unify and sacrifice to defeat it.

“It is the new Red Menace, this time consisting of ink, ” Daniels said. “If a foreign power advanced an army to the border of our land, everyone in this room would drop everything and look for a way to help. We would set aside all other agendas and disputes as secondary, and go to the ramparts until the threat was repelled. That is what those of us here, and every possible ally we can persuade to join us, are now called to do.”

Daniels, who has a reputation as a policy wonk, didn’t disappoint, addressing the national deficit at the exclusion of almost all else, with length and specificity— something George Will called the “charisma of competence” in his introduction. Daniels likely benefited from his speech slot. The CPAC dinner audience is more focused and patient than the daytime audience, allowing speakers time to unpack a philosophy instead of worrying about packing the room.

The daytime crowds warmed to animated speakers like Herman Cain and Gov. Rick Perry more than the low-key stylings of John Thune and Tim Pawlenty.

But Daniels’ speech wasn’t unrelenting in its seriousness. He zinged Obama over his Nobel Peace Prize and said the EPA should be renamed the “Employment Prevention Agency.” He called the fiscal crisis of our nation our “raison debt,” to chuckling from the audience.

Other parts of the speech offered tough love in the place of easy applause lines. Claiming a longtime animus toward earmarks, Daniels also called them a “trifle” compared to what’s driving insolvency.

“Talking much more about them, 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.

Daniels also put defense spending on the table.

“I served in two administrations that practiced and validated the policy of peace through strength. It has served America and the world with irrefutable success,” he said. “But if our nation goes over a financial Niagara, we won’t have much strength and, eventually, we won’t have peace.”

He mentioned a Medicare 2.0 that would “restore to the next generation the dignity of making their own decisions” and a new “Social Seucurity compact” with young people. He urged conservatives not to be defensive about these new ideas.

“When they attack us for our social welfare reforms,” he said. “We will say that the true enemies of Social Security and Medicare are those who defend an imploding status quo, and the arithmetic backs us up.”

He urged conservatives not to let the “perfect to be the enemy of the historic good.”

“Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers. King Pyrrhus is remembered, but his nation disappeared. Winston Churchill set aside his lifetime loathing of Communism in order to fight World War II. Challenged as a hypocrite, he said that when the safety of Britain was at stake, his “conscience became a good girl.” We are at such a moment. I for one have no interest in standing in the wreckage of our Republic saying ‘I told you so’ or ‘You should’ve done it my way.'”

Daniels did not address his controversial comments about social conservatives, in which he has twice urged a “truce” on social issues while the country fights the debt crisis, nor did he talk about foreign policy in a week when Egypt has been the focus of the world’s attention and concern.

But reaction to the speech from the audience was largely positive.

“He gave a terrific speech,” said New Jersey activist Jesus Moreno. “He didn’t sugarcoat our fiscal difficulties.”

Mike Evers of Sarasota, Fla. liked the “technocrat” tone of the speech.

“He really understands the nuts and bolts,” Evers said, which was enough for him to forgive a lack of “flair and pizazz.”

Activists Ethel Rowland of Florida and Tim Johnson of North Carolina said the speech was a good first impression from a figure they hadn’t known much about before Friday.

“Any governor who can run his state as fiscally conservative [as Daniels has] deserves a lot of respect and commendation,” Rowland said.