Mitch Daniels Is St. George Versus the Debt Dragon

The country needs a 2012 presidential candidate whose No. 1 aim is to tame the raging federal debt. That candidate well could be Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who’s proved he can manage at the state level.

All prospective GOP candidates will propose deep spending cuts, but Daniels rightly elevates the cause of debt control to an epic battle for the nation’s future.

At last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, he declared that, as during the 1860s, the 1940s and the Cold War, “the American project is menaced by a survival-level threat.

“We face an enemy, lethal to liberty, and even more implacable than those America has defeated before. We cannot deter it. ... We cannot negotiate with it, any more than with an iceberg or a Great White.”

He labeled it “the new Red Menace” and called for a new national unity around battling it. “It is our generational assignment. It is the mission of our era.”

Daniels told me months ago that there was a “2 percent chance” that he might run for president, but he is acting like that percentage has risen considerably — as witness his appearing at the CPAC cattle show.

It might be a long shot for a mild-mannered, 5-foot-7-inch Hoosier with a droll wit to win the nomination or the presidency, but Daniels has both the message and the record to improve the odds.

He’s also got the résumé — Congressional aide, think tank president, millionaire CEO, White House budget director, popular two-term governor and Harley-Davidson rider.

In recently published lists of the states and their deficits, Indiana appears in the best shape of any in the nation.

Daniels inherited a $200 million deficit when first elected in 2000, but he has produced seven straight balanced budgets, mainly through efficiencies, not tax increases.

The state built up a $1.3 billion surplus by 2008, which helped see it through the Great Recession. Now, he has a program whereby, when the state reaches balance, it stops collecting taxes.

At the same time, the Indiana governor is not a mere spending-slasher. He calls himself “a bit of a Whig,” meaning he thinks the government has jobs to do, including building infrastructure and educating children.

He just believes in government doing what it does well. He controversially sold the Indiana Toll Road to private investors for $1.8 billion to reinvest in other roads.

“We can build in half the time and two-thirds the cost when we use our own money and are free of the federal rule book,” he told CPAC.

Indiana has 18,000 fewer state employees than it did in 2000 and has the fewest per capita in the country.

Property taxes are now the lowest in the nation. The state is one of just nine with a AAA bond rating.

Daniels applies metrics to practically every state function, including the time it takes to clear a building permit and wait times at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (down from 40 minutes to eight.)

So, Daniels can deliver. And what he proposes is “a way back to greatness” for the country by dealing “decisively” with the “arithmetic of disaster” currently facing it.

He would write new “compacts” for future Social Security and Medicare recipients based on means-testing benefits and vouchers for buying private health insurance.

“Our morbidly obese federal government needs not just behavior modification,” he told CPAC, “but bariatric surgery.” He would cut defense as well as civilian spending.

He would reform taxes to make them “lower and flatter” and “untie Gulliver” with deregulation.

“The nation must be summoned to General Quarters in the cause of economic growth,” he said. “We don’t have a prayer of defeating the Red Threat of our generation without a long boom of almost unprecedented duration” through “faster expansion of the private sector.”

What sets Daniels apart from other GOP candidates is a willingness to compromise with adversaries and build a “big tent” to attract support.

“I wish to be plain-spoken,” he bravely told the tea-party-heavy CPAC crowd. “It is up to us to argue for the best way back with all our passion.

“But should the best way back be blocked, while the enemy draws nearer, then someone will need to find the second best way. Or the third, because the nation’s survival requires it.”

“Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers,” he added. “As we have learned in Indiana, big changes require big majorities. We will need people who never tune in to Rush or Glenn or Laura or Sean.”

Even though he is personally anti-abortion, he’s called for a “truce” on social issues to “unify America.”

Daniels also told CPAC that conservatives “must display a heart for every American, and a special passion for those still on the first rung of life’s ladder. Upward mobility is the crux of the American promise.”

While slamming much of President Barack Obama’s program, especially health care reform, he’s praised his Race to the Top program in education and is adapting it in Indiana.

Daniels lacks the charisma of a movie star, and he can’t throw a football 90 yards. But he is a Ronald Reagan-Jack Kemp “growth” conservative. And he did win re-election by 18 points against an Obama tide. It could just happen.