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Can Mitch Daniels Be Saved from Himself?

11:52 AM, Feb 18, 2011 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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While watching the video of Indiana governor Mitch Daniels' smooth CPAC speech, I had the same thought that I had when I heard him speak to a small group of reporters at the Heritage Foundation in June: He seems well-suited to do what the next president must do--reform entitlement programs.

Can Mitch Daniels Be Saved from Himself?

As Daniels told those gathered at CPAC, "Medicare 2.0 should restore to the next generation the dignity of making their own decisions, by delivering its dollars directly to the individual, based on financial and medical need, entrusting and empowering citizens to choose their own insurance and, inevitably, pay for more of their routine care like the discerning, autonomous consumers we know them to be." 

Although reforming entitlements obviously won't be easy, having a smart, sober, and articulate Midwesterner with executive experience in the White House could help reassure the public and improve the chances of real reform.

But what may be a big problem for Daniels--as a matter of policy and a matter of electoral politics--is his proposed "truce" on social issues. Jay Cost writes today that he thinks the truce makes a lot of sense. I'm doubtful for two reasons:

1. Daniels has not been able to explain what a "truce" would mean in practice or how it would help him pass his fiscal agenda.

2. It is not clear that running on a proposed truce would help Daniels win the general election, and running on a truce in the Republican primary will probably keep him from winning nomination in the first place.

As for the policy part of it: The president doesn't really have the ability to enforce a truce on social issues. The Congress passes bills, and the president may sign them into law or veto them. Would a "truce" mean vetoing all legislation dealing with social issues whether he likes it or not? Daniels hasn't said. He also hasn't explained what a truce would mean in the areas where the president has direct power: judicial appointments and executive orders.

When I asked Daniels last June if a truce meant that, if elected, he wouldn't issue an executive order reinstating Ronald Reagan's Mexico City Policy banning federal "family planning" funds to overseas groups that perform or promote abortions, he replied, "I don't know." About a week later, Daniels decided he's in favor of reinstating the Mexico City Policy on fiscal grounds. (Nevermind that the Mexico City Policy would not reduce amount of foreign aid by one cent, it would just keep tax dollars from flowing to pro-abortion groups.)

And then there's this question: Would a single member of Congress decide to vote for turning Medicare into a voucher program for future beneficiaries because President Daniels "set aside" social issues? "No one may take the offer," Daniels told Michael Gerson in June. "But I'm not prepared to give up on the idea we can address this thing. If we can't -- well, the cynics were right. But somebody has to try."

So there doesn't seem to be a reason to believe that declaring a truce on social issues--whatever that might mean in practice--would help solve the country's fiscal problems. After all, New Jersey governor Chris Christie has fought to get rid of liberal activist judges in New Jersey, and that hasn't hindered his ability to govern as a fiscal conservative. 

As for the political side of the equation: I haven't seen data to suggest that a truce on social issues would help a Republican win the presidency. Polls show that the country is about evenly split on the question of whether abortion should be generally legal or generally illegal (with exceptions for rare cases, such as when the pregnancy threatens the mother's life or was the result of rape). As Ramesh Ponnuru has been pointing out for some time, voters who see abortion as an important issue in determing how they vote are much more pro-life than pro-choice. Back in April of 1984, Ronald Reagan published a short book, Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation. He won 49 states that November. 

In 2010, we saw a number of Republicans win races in battlground states--Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, just to name a few. And, while these pro-life candidates emphasized the pressing fiscal issues at hand, they all managed to win without declaring a "truce" on social issues. Almost all of the Republican freshmen are pro-life, including many from blue districts, such as Ann Marie Buerkle and Michael Grimm of New York and Bobby Schilling and Joe Walsh of Illinois. Republican Blake Farenthold's strategy of directly attacking Democrat Ciro Rodriguez on the abortion issue seems to have worked in a 71-percent Hispanic district. Rodriguez was just one of many self-described pro-life Democrats who voted for Obamacare and fared badly.

Listening to some pundits and consultants, you'll hear that the Republican Party, now dominated by the Tea Party or movement conservative wing, doesn't care about social issues. As Dick Morris wrote in one column, "social issues are nowhere on the Tea Party agenda." How does he know?

I recently participated in a conference call with tea-party affiliates throughout the country. During the question period that followed my speech, one leader of a local tea-party group asked a question about abortion. The conference-call leader jumped in before I could answer and ruled the query out of order. “Our priorities are to oppose taxes, support fiscal conservatism, and advance free-market principles,” she scolded the questioner. “We do not take a position on social issues like abortion,” she added.

As important as the opinion of one self-appointed Tea Party leader who organized a conference call may be, it's worth noting that all of the Tea Party Senate candidates in 2010 were pro-life. In fact, the abortion issue was a significant reason why Charlie Crist and Arlen Specter had to flee the Republican Party. Pro-choice candidates also lost GOP Senate primaries in California, New Hampshire, Alaska, Delaware, and New York.

One might think that the "truce" might play well for Daniels in the New Hampshire primary, but take a close look at the 2010 New Hampshire Senate primary where abortion became a big issue. Kelly Ayotte was backed by Sarah Palin and pro-life groups--as attorney general, Ayotte's name was even on a Supeme Court case against Planned Parenthood. But Tea Partier Ovide LaMontagne, backed by Jim DeMint, criticized Ayotte during debates for not opposing abortion in all cases. Ayotte ended up winning with 38 percent of the vote, while LaMontagne took 37 percent of the vote. Pro-choice multi-millionaire Bill Binnie got 14 percent, and pro-choice candidate Jim Bender got 9 percent. It's been a long time since Granite State Republicans nominated pro-choice Warren Rudman for Senate, and Daniels would have a tough time spurning socially conservative voters in New Hampshire in 2012, just as Rudy Giuliani did in 2008.

So it doesn't seem that the "truce" would help Daniels win the presidential nomination or enact fiscal reforms if elected president. The fact is that reforming Medicare polls badly, but the case for reform must be made. Jettisoning relatively popular social issues is not going to help Daniels--or any other Republican--get the job done.

For these practical and principled reasons, some of Daniels's biggest supporters have encouraged him to back off of his "truce" and say that he was just trying to emphasize that the economy, debt, and spending will be his top priorities. As Congressman Paul Ryan said, it's important to form a broad coalition to fight "social welfare statism," but "we don’t need to ask anybody to unilaterally disarm." 

But as for the truce, Ryan said: "I’m as pro-life as a person gets. You’re not going to have a truce. Judges are going to come up. Issues come up, they’re unavoidable, and I’m never going to not vote pro-life."

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