Daniels’ book is a rare policy script from a sitting governor

But in modern Hoosier political history, there has never been a book written by a sitting Indiana governor, until Mitch Daniels published “Keeping the Republic: Saving America by Trusting Americans.” And there has never been a book in this setting that occupies such a relevant plank at such a critical moment in the history of the nation. It is very much a policy prescription. As Washington Post columnist George Will writes in the forward, “It takes a worried man to write a worried book and Daniels has done so,” all while “speaking his well-stocked mind.” In the opening pages, the Governor acknowledges, “I am desperately alarmed about the condition and direction of the American republic.”

Thus, we have the “Daniels’ Doctrine” as Will puts it, or “conservatism for grown-ups.”

Daniels’ writes that the danger “is far greater than simple material well-being. The power of free institutions has always rested on their ability to produce prosperity, which in turn powers free peoples to engage in personal and creative pursuits.” All around us – from the newspaper industry, to the Catholic church, to Congress – we see venerable institutions gasping under the weight of new realities.

Daniels does an excellent job in framing the dilemma as Americans have “amassed ruinous amounts of debt” ($9.65 trillion or 62% of the national economy) in what Robert Samuelson calls “suicidal government” that we have witnessed in Washington, lurching from Republican spasms, to Democratic, and back again, each wave becoming more polarized. In our own Hoosier experience, we’ve gone from Evan Bayh’s cries seeking “bipartisanship” to Richard Mourdock’s outright and repeated denunciation of the concept.

“This is not a matter of opinion based on a preference for limited government,” writes Daniels. “It’s a brutally objective fact of life. For today, can we agree that the arithmetic here does not work?”

It reminded me of my attendance at Indiana University’s Russian and East European Institute seminars in the mid- to late-1980s on the Soviet Union. None of the experts were predicting the implosions that would occur throughout the Warsaw Pact between 1989-91. There were the French of 1789 (weakened by the Seven Years War while financing the American Revolution) and the Soviets two centuries after the Bourbons, which vanished like our own Twin Towers.

Daniels finds “large majorities of Americans are clueless” and again, he is correct. How many times do we hear people say “I don’t vote” or “I don’t follow the news” and just laugh? America is in the midst of a 10-year war in Afghanistan while nation building in Iraq. The parallels to the French are unnerving.

In Daniels’ mind, the “next few years” may provide the answer to the way we spend the rest of our lives. The 42 workers in 1940 supporting each Social Security recipient, the 16 in 1950, have been reduced to three to one at this writing. The future benefits “grotesquely outstrip” the future taxes that will be needed to fund $5.4 trillion for Social Security and $46 trillion for Medicare. “Obamacare” adds several trillion more. All of it, Daniels says, is “enough to give Mr. Ponzi a bad name.” A fiscal failure will lead to a defense decline.

Daniels calls for a new “reconstruction” that goes beyond just rebuilding infrastructure, though that is what he did with his Major Moves program. He uses the Civil War term as “the rebuilding of the union” that means “reestablishing the oneness of the nation” and “redefining the idea of citizenship.”

The term “entitlement” needs to be replaced with “safety net reform.” The retirement age of 65 is “utterly obsolete.” Medicare 2.0 should be to convert the “safety net from a system rigged for over-consumption and open-ended runaway costs to one that focuses its dollars on the neediest seniors, encourages careful consumerist trade-offs, and reasonably limits the taxpayers’ exposure.”

Daniels calls for a federal hiring freeze, repealing of Obamacare, agency fund impoundment and a culled military mission focused on “truly vital” American interests.

Finally, Daniels calls for three essential categories: tax reform, winnowing regulatory policy and the American energy opportunity.

He quotes William Simon on implementing “a tax code that looks like somebody designed it on purpose” and echoes Dick Lugar’s 1996 presidential campaign, noting that Americans spend 6.6 billion hours and $194 billion on tax compliance for a total annual cost of $430 billion. His remedy here is a growth friendly system that eliminates all or most of current exclusions and deductions, a vastly simpler system with lower rates, taxing compensation only, while using two or three tax rates that would keep the low-income from paying much at all.

It’s admirable that Daniels has identified and subtly amplified the lurking dangers. But the conclusion I’ve come to is that he should have taken the standard into battle, because no one else in the Republican field has risen to the challenge in a credible way.

(The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Contact Howey at bhowey2@gmail.com.)

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