Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- "I would reinstate the Mexico City policy," Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels told me, removing an uncertainty of his own creation. Promoting abortion with international family planning funds is one of "a thousand things we shouldn't be spending money on."

Yet days earlier, when asked if he would return to that family planning rule as president, Daniels had responded: "I don't know." It is a measure of Daniels' standing as a possible Republican candidate in 2012 that his answer caused a considerable stir. Social conservatives criticized his idea that a "truce" on divisive, culture war controversies might be required to deal with "survival issues" such as terrorism and debt.

Rush Limbaugh

Daniels' clarification on Mexico City shows his realism. But his continued insistence on the idea of a truce shows his stubbornness -- a defining characteristic. "If there were a WMD attack, death would come to straights and gays, pro-life and pro-choice," he told me. "If the country goes broke, it would ruin the American dream for everyone. We are in this together. Whatever our honest disagreements on other questions, might we set them aside long enough to do some very difficult things without which we will be a different, lesser country?"

This is the paradox of Mitch Daniels: He is a uniter with an apocalyptic message, a genial Jeremiah. "I start with a premise that not everyone agrees with -- that the republic is threatened as it has not been before, if you don't count the Soviet nuclear threat. ... It is the arithmetic of debt. If unaddressed, it makes national failure a certainty. Beyond some point, you can't come back."

Daniels' appeal is not ideological; it is mathematical. The passions aroused by ideology, in his view, hamper the ability of political adults to deal rationally with disturbing budget numbers. But if Daniels de-emphasizes ideology, he elevates moral virtues such as thrift, realism and humility. The vivid contrast to President Obama's expansive, undisciplined, expensive public ambitions has elevated Daniels to prominence.

This is not a pose. I was a colleague of Daniels when he was director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). It was his job to say "no" to splendid policy proposals, which he did with good-humored enthusiasm. Raining on parades was both a profession and a hobby.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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