Missing the indispensable Republican man

Will went on to say that “the person who should have been the Republican nominee” – Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels – had in February 2011 “laconically warned conservatives about a prerequisite for persuading people to make painful adjustments to a rickety entitlement state.”

Daniels had told a CPAC audience, “A more affirmative, ‘better angels’ approach to voters is really less an aesthetic than a practical one. With apologies for the banality, I submit that, as we ask Americans to join us on such a boldly different course, it would help if they liked us, just a bit.”

Will, who had introduced Daniels for that speech by observing “never has there been a higher ratio between mind and mass” in one public servant, would add call Romney “a diligent warrior” but added, “Next time, Republicans need a more likable one.”

I’m going to assert a different angle here: Obama won and Romney lost on the female vote, in one inconspicuous setting in Carmel, Ind. By a 75 percent to 25 percent margin, Gov. Daniels lost the Daniels family female caucus. It may have cost Republicans the presidency.

President Obama’s biggest threat, I believe, was Daniels.

Mitt Romney tried to become something he really wasn’t, which was a true believing conservative. He had to churn into a variety of contortions during the Republican primary sequence and it left him damaged in the eyes of independents and moderates who tend to settle elections.

In watching the two gubernatorial campaigns Daniels ran and won, the way he cleared the primary field prior, his legacy as political director of the Reagan White House, his successful tenure with the Republican Senatorial Committee, and his 1982 management of Sen. Dick Lugar’s first reelection campaign during a deep recession, Daniels displayed uncanny political ability, instinct and timing.

The one word I would never use to describe Mitch Daniels is “fake.” The guy is not only an intellectual powerhouse, he is a master writer, strategist and tactician. Unlike Romney, Daniels wouldn’t have to change his skin.

You don’t have to agree with him in a political or policy sense to at least acknowledge that the governor had complete command of the wheel. His logic and powers of persuasion allowed him to win friends and clip detractors.

Daniels has been viewed as an “economic” conservative and had famously called for a “truce” on social issues. In his new book of speeches –  “Aiming Higher: Words That Changed a State” –  some of his most inspirational oratory came before the Indiana Family Institute and the First Baptist Church in Hammond, where he said, “I will not, and I cannot seek to lead a government that will itself be the advocate of our faith. That is not our system. But I will seek to lead a government that is the protector of our faith and all those who will advocate it and that’s as it should be, because the rest is up to us.”

In Daniels, you had a Republican who won 22 percent of the African-American vote in 2008 (while Obama won Indiana), who could speak fluent Spanish, whose administration was gender inclusive, who refused to campaign negatively but was adroit in contrast, avoided the denigration of demographic subgroups, and was poised to act on the greatest threat to America, the “red menace” of our sprawling and unsustainable entitlements.

Does Daniels agree with Will’s assessment of the 2012 GOP disaster? “He and some others have said that sort of thing,” Daniels told me.

Could he have won? “No one can know,” Daniels responded. “Many things can go wrong with any such effort and something probably would. We would have brought in a very broad coalition of allies. I can give you 37 reasons why it probably wouldn’t have worked out in the end.”

“I haven’t spent a minute second-guessing my decision,” Daniels added.

No, that is territory for pundits.

I asked Daniels if he was on the verge of a “legacy lap” around the state in his campaign symbol – RV1 – during his final six weeks in office.  He modestly claims no interest in legacy, but that is the one thing not to believe.

“I’m going back to Stroh, Indiana, one of my favorite stops that we made,” Daniels said. “There was a family with a little boy who was four when he signed the RV. So now he’s 13. His name is Mitch, by the way. A lot of people remember him. In the (campaign) TV show, they watched him painstakingly print his name.”

Over the past decade, Daniels had spent 125 nights in the homes of Hoosiers. You have to wonder if Mitt Romney had done that, he might have come off as more grounded and in tune with the voters who actually decide elections.

(The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com Find him on Twitter @hwypol.)

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