Monday, February 28, 2011

2012 Contender: Mitch Daniels, Conservative?

Who is Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels? That’s a good question. The establishment loves him. Indeed, everyone from establishment conservatives like George Will to establishment liberals like The Economist and The New York Times heap praise upon him. Is it deserved? That’s hard to say because divining Daniels’ true beliefs is difficult because every time Daniels giveth, Daniels taketh away.

Daniels’ history is that of a consummate insider. He spent years working for RINO Richard Lugar, he served as Reagan’s budget director, he ran the US operations for Eli Lilly (a big pharmaceuticals firm), he was president of the Hudson Institute (a conservative think tank), and he served as Bush II’s budget director. As governor of Indiana has been known for being pragmatic and “not dogmatic.” Here’s why:

Smaller (Growing) Government: Daniels talks about making the government smaller, BUT then says the government must be aggressive at doing things the private sector cannot, “like improving schools” (which frankly, the private sector is doing better). He further says, “the nation really needs to rebuild,” a standard Democratic trope for spending. As Governor, Daniels has kept spending growth below inflation, BUT he hasn’t actually cut the budget.

Stimulus: He derided the stimulus BUT took the cash he was offered.

Deficit Cutting: He sounds good on the deficit. He favors cuts in military spending. He intentionally avoids puffery statements like cutting “waste, fraud and abuse,” which are shorthand for “I have no idea.” He favors changes to Medicare and Social Security rather than tax increases to cut deficits. Specifically, he favors benefit cuts for high-income and healthy people. He favors slowing the yearly increase in benefits to reduce the real value of reimbursements over time. And he favors raising the age eligibility for both programs, i.e. the retirement age. These are good ideas. BUT, his track record is not as impressive. As Bush II’s budget director, Bush referred to Daniels as “the Blade,” but the budget went from a surplus of $236 billion to a deficit of $400 billion. Some conservatives accused him of “carr[ying] water. . . for some of the Bush administration’s more egregious budgets [and making] dubious public arguments in support of his boss’s agenda.” Of course, that was his job. FYI, he underestimated the cost of the Iraq War by more than 11 times.

Taxes: In 2008, Daniels proposed and got a property tax ceiling put in place of 2% on rental properties and 3% on businesses. This resulted in an average property tax cut of 30% and gave Indiana one of the lowest property tax rates in the country (these caps were put into the state constitution in 2010 by voters). BUT, in exchange for that tax ceiling, he agreed to raise the state’s sales tax from 6% to 7%.

Unions: Daniels reduced the number of state workers by 18% since he took over as Indiana’s Governor in 2005. BUT, Daniels definitely blew the recent union issue. When Democrats fled the state as they had in Wisconsin after Republicans introduced a right to work bill, Daniels first said he “saluted” the Democrats and that their actions were a “perfectly legitimate part of the process.” Here’s what he said: “Even the smallest minority. . . has every right to express the strength of its views and I salute those who did.” Then he tried to backtrack by saying he meant to salute the protestors, not the Democrats. The Democrats, he said, were “try[ing] to trash the process, run[ning] out to another state to hide out” and were behaving “totally unacceptably.” Of course, he’s wrong both times. The Democrats have the right to do what they are doing, but they should not be saluted for it. His job was to exploit their bad decision. He did not. Instead, he caved in to them, abandoning the right to work bill: “I’ve explained more than once, I thought there was a better time and place to have this very important and legitimate issue raised.” Really, when?

Global Warming: With an eye on the White House, Daniels wrote an editorial in the Wall Street Journal in which he condemned the Democrats’ cap and trade bill. In that editorial, he echoes my arguments that the scheme would do nothing to affect global warming and would only put the US at a disadvantage to China and India. So far, so good. BUT, he also says he’s approaching the “‘climate change’ debate with an open-mind” and he will let “others” address the “scientific and economic questions.” Then he goes on to say that Indiana is “eager to pursue a new energy future” which he describes as biofuels, wind power, clean coal and “aggressive energy-conservation, indubitably the most cost-effective means of limiting CO2.” His clean coal push also involves “carbon capture.” In other words, he’s not sure about global warming, but he’s all in favor of limiting carbon, i.e. he favors fighting global warming. This is very troubling.

ObamaCare: He supports repealing ObamaCare, BUT he also identifies reforms he would like to see if it isn’t repealed, none of which seem particularly conservative. Indeed, these seem mainly to include dumping Medicaid beneficiaries into Obama’s exchanges and demanding more reimbursement from the federal government. He also proposes giving insurers more flexibility in what they can offer. None of that is good.

Immigration: Daniels has remained disturbingly silent on illegal immigration. He side-stepped questions about Arizona’s law by saying they had “every right to pass that law” (note he doesn’t actually say it’s legal) but that Indiana was “not in the same situation.” Now that a similar bill has been introduced in Indiana, which has an estimated 85,000 illegal immigrants, Daniels refuses to say if he supports it.

Social Conservatism: Social conservatives have been rather upset at Daniels because he said that conservatives need to call “a truce” on social issues because politicians need to unite on urgent matters of national security and debt. Beyond that,

● Daniels claims to be anti-abortion.

● He claims to oppose same-sex marriage as well as recognizing civil unions.

● He supports affirmative action in government contracting and hiring, but not in college admissions.

● He’s a Syrian-American Presbyterian, who says that “atheism leads to brutality” and claims that “the whole idea of equality of men and women and of the races all springs from the notion that we’re all children of a just God,” BUT he also says: “I also take very seriously the responsibility to treat my public duties in a way that keeps separate church and state and respects alternative views.”

So who is the real Mitch Daniels? I honestly don’t know. If I had to pull out a label, I’d say he’s a moderately-conservative establishment type who believes in not rocking the boat. He’s very good at saying things that sound like he’s agreeing with them, without actually agreeing with them, and I have found no evidence that he’s pushing anything more than a veneer of a conservative agenda. He certainly avoids controversy. Would he make a good president? Probably. Would he make a good conservative president? Probably not. But in truth, I have no idea who he really is.

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