Ross Douthat may have found his candidate: Indiana governor Mitch Daniels.
“I’ve never seen a president of the United States when I look in the mirror,” Daniels remarked last week, after officially inching the door ajar for 2012. You can’t blame him: At 5’7”, the Indiana governor wouldn’t be the tallest man to occupy the White House, and he’d be the baldest president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. If Romney looks like central casting’s idea of a chief executive, Daniels resembles the character actor who plays the director of the Office of Management and Budget — a title that he held, as it happens, during George W. Bush’s first term.
Now, as Ross suggests, there are problems. Daniels is a favourite of DC-based GOP wonks but he's largely unknown outside the capital and his home state. Nor, as Ross also points out, does he look like the kind of chap who could be President. Of course, this can, at least putatively, be spun to his advantage: after four years of Obama Glamour, Americans could, again in theory, be sold on a package of quiet, pragmatic achievement. If this carries unfortunate echoes, to British ears, of Iain Duncan Smith's "Beware the Quiet Man" approach then at least Daniels has a record that he can run on.“
Since then, though, he’s become America’s best governor. In a just world, Daniels’s record would make him the Tea Party movement’s favorite politician. During the fat years of the mid-2000s, while most governors went on spending sprees, he was trimming Indiana’s payroll, slowing the state government’s growth, and turning a $800 million deficit into a consistent surplus. Now that times are hard, his fiscal rigor is paying off: the state’s projected budget shortfall for 2011, as a percentage of the budget, is the third-lowest in the country.
But Daniels hasn’t just been a Dr. No on policy. His “Healthy Indiana” plan, which offers catastrophic coverage to low-income residents, aspires to eventually cover 130,000 people, about a third of the state’s long-term uninsured. He’s pushed targeted investments in kindergarten programs, the police force and the child welfare office. And he’s been a pragmatic free-marketeer, rather than a strict ideologue.
More importantly, despite his solid conservative credentials, there isn't an obvious Party of Daniels out there. What part of the GOP constituency can he lay claim to in the primaries? Ross concludes that Daniels' best hope is if the party establishment cools on Mitt Romney and swings behind the governor of Indiana. Could that happen? Well, it's not impossible.
But Daniels, and politicians like him, offer the GOP a sustainable path back to power that's in stark contrast to the anger-based gains the GOP is likely to make this November.