On the policy side, he headed Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith’s “Service, Efficiency and Lower Taxes for Indianapolis Commission,” known as SELTIC, and directed the Hudson Institute, both vanguards to the way he approached his governorship. After two years in President George W. Bush’s White House as budget director, he returned home to run – in almost every aspect – two gubernatorial campaigns that knocked off a popular sitting governor before winning an 18-point reelection landslide in the face of Barack Obama’s capture of Indiana’s 11 Electoral College votes.
Like Frank O’Bannon, Evan Bayh, Lee Hamilton, Bob Orr, Dan Coats, Ray Madden, Julia Carson and Doc Bowen, Daniels is undefeated. Whether you agree with him or not on the issues, he has become a rare political figure who matched his prowess at the ballot box with a once-in-a-generation policy boldness, willing to expend all of his political capital when others at the beginning of this paragraph often hoarded the same.
From this political perspective, Daniels’ book “Keeping the Republic: Saving America by Trusting Americans” offers fascinating political nuggets apart from his far-reaching prescriptions of how to bring the nation out of its current malaise.
There are admissions of error. “Once in office, after some early slips into tit-for-tat harshness of rhetoric, I learned that cheek turning is more effective than name calling, and have held to the practice with very few slip-ups,” Daniels writes in the chapter “Can We Talk?” He was almost certainly referring to his 2005 temper tantrum when House Minority Leader B. Patrick Bauer had his caucus walk out, prompting Daniels to label him a “car-bomber.
“There were other glimpses of gubernatorial anger, like finger-wagging responses during the Major Moves sequence in 2006 when he was heckled in places like Angola and Hammond. But later on the Gov. Daniels we saw in the Statehouse hallways, when surrounded by protesting teachers earlier this year was, well, restrained. “I once remarked that I thought I might bleed to death from biting my tongue too much. But success is the only realm that matters” and is “far more likely for those who practice politics of goodwill.”
Exhibit A is Gov. Daniels during this year’s House Democrat five-week walkout, when he appeared almost sanguine, but firm. He was urged by allies and commentators to retaliate. “I think they deserve another chance. Let the heat of the moment cool, I hope,” Daniels said at a media briefing. Asked about the impact of the walkout on the 2012 elections, Daniels frankly said, “I don’t know what to say to people who think only in political tactical terms.”
Daniels expresses contempt for the political consulting class in his book. “The mercenaries, with no particular stake in any program of public improvement, and who most assuredly will not be around should a winning candidate attempt to implement one, tend to recommend negative tactics as the first and foremost element of any campaign,” he writes. “Their highly formulaic, repetitive and boring attack ads germinate in a compost of laziness, indifference to principle, and contempt for the intelligence and standards of the voters they believe they can manipulate.”
This comes from the candidate who wrote his own TV ads. While there were contrasting ads in the 2004 campaign against Gov. Joe Kernan, Daniels joins a short list of longtime officeholders like Lugar and Hamilton who have refused to go negative.
“The worst contributor to the mercenary mind-set is the assumption that the typical voter is indifferent to real ideas, or too dense to grasp them,” Daniels writes. Daniels picked up on a phrase I coined following the 2010 mid-term campaigns: “Political pornography,” linked to Merriam-Webster’s definition that includes “The depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction.”
Daniels cites numerous examples of Democratic sensational smear tactics in Indiana legislative races, such as a lawyer who was falsely accused of malpractice (Jud McMillin), a coal miner who was said to have poisoned his environment (Matt Ubelhor), and a pharmacist accused of selling on-demand abortions (Steve Davisson).
Daniels’ book greatly expands on his February CPAC speech in Washington. The title of the book is in the penultimate paragraph. In that speech, Daniels said: “The public is increasingly disgusted with a steady diet of defamation, and prepared to reward those who refrain from it.”
The question becomes this: Can a politician without Daniels’ acumen pull it off? After five Baron Hill/Mike Sodrel gutter fights, could a candidate in the old 9th CD stay positive – then contrast with his mudslinging opponent – and win? Can Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard or Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry win and not throw a speck of mud, as they did in 2007?
Most of the political pros are skeptical.
(The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Contact Howey at firstname.lastname@example.org.)