INDIANAPOLIS -- "If I could wave a magic wand and change just one thing, it would be to guarantee that every American child could grow up in a two-parent home until the age of 18. That would solve maybe three-quarters of our problems."
So said Indiana governor and possible presidential candidate Mitch Daniels. The words may surprise those who know only that Daniels has proposed a "truce" on social issues for the 2012 campaign. Daniels, whose pro-life and pro-family credentials could not be more solid, was simply attempting to sketch the nature of the fiscal and economic catastrophe that he says is coming, and that, for now, must take priority. "The debt is a devastating enemy. The threat from the Soviet Union may have been more severe -- if you go broke, you're still alive -- but it was also less likely." National bankruptcy, on the other hand, "is a mathematical certainty" if we don't change course ... and fast. "The America that we have known is profoundly threatened."
It's because the stakes are so high that Daniels has let himself be cajoled into considering a presidential run himself -- though with reluctance -- and I'll come back to that in a moment. A parade of political professionals, pundits, and scribblers (including me) has trouped to Indianapolis because the modest, humorous, and mild-mannered Daniels may well be the best chief executive in American government.
After stints as a Senate staffer, a senior adviser to President Ronald Reagan, president of the Hudson Institute, president for North American operations at Eli Lilly, and director of the Office of Management and Budget under George W. Bush, Daniels was elected governor of Indiana in 2004. He was re-elected in 2008 (when Obama carried the state), winning more votes than any candidate in the state's history.
Inheriting a $600 million deficit, Daniels transformed it into a $370 million surplus within one year, without raising taxes. "You'd be amazed how much government you'll never miss," he grins. Six years on, Indiana now enjoys a AAA bond rating, boasts the fewest state workers per capita in the nation, enjoys the third-highest private-sector job growth in the nation, has seen property taxes drop by an average of 30 percent, and was ranked first in the Midwest for business climate by the Tax Foundation. Daniels was named Public Official of the Year in 2008 by Governing magazine.
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