Mitch Daniels book explains ‘conservatism for grown-ups’

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels’ new book is a rare work by a politician. He doesn’t describe his childhood or how his life story makes him worthy of elected office.

Instead, Daniels’ book is the product of a policy wonk, concluding with the “Daniels Doctrine, or conservatism for grown-ups,” as George Will dubbed it in the foreword: a specific set of solutions to the problems facing the country.

The book, entitled “Keeping the Republic: Saving America by Trusting Americans,” gives an idea of what kind of presidential candidate he might have been, and what kind of vice presidential candidate he could be – a position to which he has said he is open and for which he is likely on the short list.

“What follows is most determinedly not about me because, frankly, I’m not that interesting,” Daniels allows in the introduction. Instead, his stated purpose for writing the book is his fear over the country’s growing debt, which he calls a “survival-level threat to the America we have known.”

“[F]or the first time in my life,” he writes, “I am desperately alarmed about the condition and direction of the American republic. What recently seemed a secure, even more prosperous, internationally dominant nation is now endangered in a way it never has been before.”

“The level of government spending we are engaging in may soon leave us with a defunct, bankrupt, destitute economy. If we don’t find a way to restore the goose to good health, we will soon run out of golden eggs,” he continues. (FLASHBACK: Students for Solvency PAC aims to keep Daniels’ message alive)

Daniels’ book is not what he calls an “obituary” for the country – he is hopeful that solutions can be found for the pressing problems.

The Indiana governor’s solutions are based on the idea of smaller government.

“Government must serve as a referee,” he writes, “a definer of limits and an enforcer of rules. But there is an enormous difference between government as boundary setter and government as micromanager.”

He calls first for reform of the safety net – Social Security and Medicare. Daniels argues that we should “bifurcate” those programs, leaving them untouched for people who are already benefiting them and for those who will very soon, and altering them for younger people.

Social Security should be means tested, he says, so that in the absence of sufficient resources to do it on a larger scale, we can “direct the available funds to those most in need.”

Doing otherwise, Daniels argues, is ridiculous, and shamelessly political. “In truth, there has never been any reason, humanitarian or economic, for this absurdity of giving money to rich people except the nakedly political one. It has always been believed by the statist quo’s defenders that to ensure the program’s political untouchability, it was necessary to make every single American a recipient, purchasing his undying support.”

Moreover, he writes, the retirement age should be raised, to account for the reality that people now live longer than they did when the program was begun. He also argues that we should “increase future benefits to offset inflation.”

For Medicare, he proposes:

“Assure every American up to some high-income threshold that a set amount will await them, money they can then use for the purchase of health insurance suitable for them. The amount can be adjusted not only for income but also for health status, so that the sickest or most inform participants receive the higher amounts they are likely to be charged for insurance.”

To save the system, he says, “We need to evolve back to an arrangement in which at least a significant share of these costs fall on the individual patient and his family.”

Daniels argues against new taxes, but his attitude is that the nation’s problems must be solved, even if it means swallowing some solutions that are less than ideal. “[I]t must be done—or we are,” he writes. That sentiment runs throughout the final chapter: that “if the choice comes to the second or third best option versus inaction and disaster, mark me down for the former.”

Using language that has plunged presidential hopeful Rick Perry into controversial waters, Daniels writes of entitlement programs, saying that people who claim that leaving the programs as they are constitutes saving them will ultimately be revealed as false friends, “by arithmetic and the common sense of their fellow citizens, who know Ponzi schemes when they see them.”

Daniels would prune government – downsizing the number of federal employees and imposing a hiring freeze, as well as a federal pay cut and a long-term pay freeze. He would also repeal Obama’s health care overhaul.

On the spending front, he proposes looking for cuts everywhere, including a place that most Republicans are unwilling to look – defense spending. Though he does not propose anything specific, or even insist that spending cuts come from defense spending, he insists that all possibilities must be examined.

He also argues for impoundment – the idea that the government could choose to use less money than Congress appropriates.

He calls for a simpler tax code, with the “elimination of all current exclusions and deductions,” and one that taxes only earnings, not savings. Again, he concludes, “If it takes a higher rate to bring together the majorities necessary to pass radical simplification and a pro-growth federal tax structure, count me in.”

In lieu of welfare, Daniels suggests a Negative Income Tax (NIT), which would give low-income people money and the liberty to spend it as they wish, instead of mandating what it can be used for.

Daniels also calls for regulatory relief on all fronts and argues that the U.S. needs to tap into all forms of domestic energy, both traditional sources and new types of energy. On immigration, he says we should be more selective in who we let in – choosing people who could be helpful to the economy.

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