Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels did not attract as large a crowd when he spoke at American Enterprise Institute (where I am a resident fellow) earlier this week as he did when several months ago, before he disappointed admirers by announcing that he wouldn't run for president.
I saw no political reporters there -- though a few may have been lurking in the back -- and he got only one question (from me) about presidential politics. No, he said, he isn't reconsidering his decision not to run, and doesn't think that Chris Christie is, either.
But Daniels' message, based on his new book "Keeping the Republic," was important -- one that every presidential candidate should heed -- because it was about a looming issue that Barack Obama has so far decided to duck but that one of them, if he is elected, may have to confront.
We face, Daniels said, "a survival-level threat to the America we have known." The problem can be summed up as debt. The Obama Democrats have put us on the path to double the national debt as a percentage of gross domestic product, bringing it to levels that, as economists Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart have written in "This Time Is Different," have always proved unsustainable.
Daniels put it this way. Debt service will permanently stunt the growth of the economy. And that will be followed by a loss of leadership in the world, because "nobody follows a pauper."
That growth in debt will continue to be driven by growth in programs labeled entitlements -- though Daniels objects to that term. Congress, after all, can vote to cancel entitlement programs and deny promised benefits any time it wants, as the Supreme Court ruled in Flemming v. Nestor in 1960.
Daniels favors changes in Social Security and Medicare for tomorrow's seniors that will give them choices and market incentives in building retirement income and seeking medical care. He insists that "average folks can make good consumerist decisions" and rejects the premise held by liberals from the New Deal to today that they can't be trusted to navigate their way in our complex society.
This is quite a contrast with the Republicans out there running for president, who have had little to say about the problem of entitlements, in debates or in their platforms. Mitt Romney raises the problem but hesitates to advance solutions, and then attacks Rick Perry for intemperate comments about Social Security in his book "Fed Up!"