What a difference four years can make. In 2012, then-Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels considered running for President, but was scorched over his comments that Republicans needed to have a ‘truce’ on social issues – to have more focus on fiscal ones. At the 2016 GOP national convention, a gay man gave a speech and received a standing ovation. Four years ago, some questioned Daniels’ marital situation; his wife had left him, married another man, divorced him and returned to Daniels. Today, we have a GOP presidential candidate who’s been divorced twice and married thrice. In sum, Donald Trump has made the GOP world safe for a future Mitch Daniels candidacy.
Frankly, only Trump, a major media figure in his own right, could have changed the Republican environment so fast. Americans have known about him for years thanks to his reality show, ability to give snappy quotes to television reporters, and appearances in People magazine and the like. In this year’s primaries, his voters and supporters were aware of his background, life history and views, and they didn’t care.
In many ways Ronald Reagan made it possible for Trump to rise. Reagan was a divorced and remarried man; his 1980 opponent, then-President Jimmy Carter, was a born-again Christian. As governor of California, he signed the Therapeutic Abortion Act in 1967, only a few months into his first term. The Act essentially legalized abortion, as doctors cited the Act’s ‘mental health of the mother’ reason to perform the procedure.
In 1969 Governor Reagan signed an historic no-fault divorce law, which made divorce procedures much easier. Instead of being adversarial, one spouse could initiate divorce proceedings simply by citing ‘irreconcilable differences’. Ten years later nearly all states had enacted no-fault divorce laws.
If Mitch Daniels was unsuitable to be the GOP nominee in 2012, Ronald Reagan would have been in the same boat due to his gubernatorial record.
But Governor Reagan became President Reagan in 1981. Unwittingly he planted political seeds that would come to fruition, but only when the right time and the right messenger came together. That time was 2016 and the messenger was Donald Trump.
Mitch Daniels was prescient when he said fiscal issues needed to be dealt with before social issues. The problem: he was four years too early.
In my view, the social-conservative game changer for Trump came on June 12, when Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people at an Orlando gay nightclub; the deadliest mass murder by a single killer in U.S. history. Mateen claimed to acting for the Islamic State, and his massacre was classified as both a terrorist act and a hate crime against gays.
In the run-up to last year’s Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, emotions ran high on both sides. But Mateen’s mass murder helped to transform American views on gays.
Being a target of Islamic fundamentalists shifted the balance to a more sympathetic view of homosexuals. Thus, an openly gay man could give a speech at the 2016 GOP national convention and receive a standing ovation: something unthinkable just four years prior.
Further, fiscal issues continue to loom large. Although the official unemployment rate is at 4.9 percent, U.S. job growth is in the service sector while the number of manufacturing jobs (seen as providing higher wages than service jobs) remains flat.
Has Daniels’ chance at the presidency passed him by? If Trump wins, it might. Daniels is 67 years old (although he doesn’t look it) and would be 75 at the end of a would-be Trump second term.
If Hillary Clinton wins, however, a 71 year-old Daniels – a trim, strong, Harley Hog driver and Pennsylvania native – could get in the game in 2020.
Donald Trump has set the stage for a Daniels candidacy. The only question is whether Daniels will have the chance to achieve it.