At the precipice, America needs a serious statesman: Mitch Daniels

Trevor Wagener Contributor
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America has entered the age of the impending crisis. Our budget deficit — the largest any nation has ever had in all of human history — is set to exceed $1.5 trillion, more than 10% of GDP. Against this backdrop, President Obama has acted as a modern-day Nero, fiddling with NCAA brackets while America’s finances burn.

The American people have clearly lost faith in President Obama — his approval numbers have fallen to their lowest level yet, especially on economic matters — and yet he is consistently outpolling Republican opponents. How can this be? The answer is simple: while voters recognize Obama has failed utterly, they simply cannot take Republicans focused on trivial issues seriously. The current Republican field has grown adept at sniping at Obama, but fails to offer meaningful alternatives to his disastrous policies.

There is only one Republican who has actively proposed dealing with America’s fiscal deterioration in a realistic manner: Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. While other Republicans have done nothing more than point out Obama’s many failings, Daniels has directly challenged the status quo. Social Security, Medicare, defense spending — he has proposed major reforms to all three of the budget’s sacred cows. His common-sense reforms include means-testing entitlements, updating the eligibility age to account for improved longevity over time, and making Medicare a consumer-driven program.

Democrats may call such Republican ideas uncompassionate. But Daniels preempts such criticism with the simple truth: the current system is an enormous transfer of wealth from today’s young people to their elders. The young cannot reasonably expect to enjoy the same benefits they are now paying for their elders to receive. Today’s young deserve a backstop available to them when they retire, and the status quo will leave them nothing. True compassion means treating all generations fairly, not just baby boomers.

Daniels’ blunt honesty, realistic reform proposals, and constant references to the troubling arithmetic realities currently faced by Americans reflect his background as a former advisor to President Reagan, president of a Fortune 500 company, think tank C.E.O., and Office of Management and Budget director. Whereas the other Republican contenders have spent years as rhetoricians, television stars, and show horses, Daniels has been a lifelong workhorse.

As governor of Indiana, he inherited a $600 million deficit and turned it into a $300 million surplus in just 11 months. He reformed education, adding merit pay for teachers, vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools, and more charter schools. Most tellingly, during the boom years from 2005-2007, he saved money in a rainy day fund, so when the crisis hit in 2008, Indiana was one of very few states to stay completely in the black without tax increases.

Daniels’ tenure as governor is a case study in the electoral consequences of serious statesmanship. Avoiding the vicious partisan rhetoric that characterizes most modern politics, Daniels focused on appeals to the numbers to educate voters about the benefits of market discipline, competition, and restrained government in fields from state taxes to education and infrastructure contracts. His focus on voter education over rancorous argument has paid huge dividends: when Indiana went blue for Obama in 2008, it went red for Daniels by almost 60 percent.

Many have questioned whether Daniels’ appeal as the ultimate serious statesman can work on the national stage as it has worked in Indiana. Critics often point out that Daniels’ calls for a temporary truce on social issues to focus on the fiscal crisis could create problems with religious voters. However, they forget that Obama won in 2008 largely because of a record turnout among younger voters with fiscally conservative but socially liberal positions.

Daniels’ call for a truce on social issues undercuts Obama’s ability to get young Americans to vote against their wallets in the pursuit of social liberalization. What would motivate a young American to vote for Obama, who wants to tax them to high heaven to pay for unreformed entitlements they will never receive, if the Republican candidate tones down the rhetoric on the social issues? In exchange for a social truce — not a surrender, merely an absence of executive and legislative offensives — Republicans can make the 2012 election about the issues voters trust fiscal conservatives with the most: the budget and the economy.

America stands at the edge of a precipice: ratings agencies, the International Monetary Fund, and our biggest creditor, China, have all issued urgent warnings about America’s fiscal straits and its need for serious spending and entitlement reform. Obama’s solution is to add entitlements and add even more taxes, a recipe for budgetary disaster and permanent economic stagnation. Daniels’ solution is to tackle the problem head-on, reforming the entitlements and defense procurements that are threatening to saddle America’s youth with an unmanageable debt.

We can no longer kick the can down the road: America needs to deal with its problems now, and there is only one potential candidate who has publicly endorsed real reforms that can actually prevent a fiscal collapse: Mitch Daniels, the proven statesman.

Trevor Wagener is the executive director of the Student Initiative to Draft Daniels, president of the Yale College Republicans, and a senior at Yale University.