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Ugh: Mitch Daniels Signals Capitulation on Indiana Right to Work Bill

If Daniels is still mulling a presidential run, he isn't doing himself any favors:

Gov. Mitch Daniels signaled this afternoon that Republicans should drop the right-to-work bill that has brought the Indiana House to a standstill for two days and imperiled other measures.

Daniels told reporters this afternoon that he expected House Democrats will return to work if the bill dies. It would be unfortunate if other bills are caught up in the turmoil, he said.

He will not send out state police to corral the Democrats, the Republican governor said. The Democrat minority has right to express its views, he added.  The governor clung to his view that this is not the year to tackle right to work.

Even if one maintains an open mind about the substance of Daniels' position here (and on his stubborn social issues "truce" posture, for that matter), many conservatives will find his political instincts deeply worrisome.  The American political conversation is currently consumed by the white-hot and deeply important question of the proper relationship between public sector unions and the taxpayers who are coerced into subsidizing them.  Republican Governors in Ohio, New Jersey, and, most prominently, Wisconsin are courageously engaged in this ideological fight. 

Government unions, meanwhile, have responded with spasms of not-so-quiet desperation  -- betraying an understandable fear that today's confrontation may represent a political Rubicon for their dysfunctional and unsustainable relationship with the citizens they "serve." 

Even if Daniels doesn't see this specific bill as a top priority for Indiana at the moment, he still ought to at least recognize and respect (a) the immediate tipping point many of his RGA brethren are facing elsewhere, and (b) the mood of both the GOP base and the country.  Blithely caving on this bill and politely suggesting that delinquent Hoosier State Democrats return to work badly misreads today's political climate.  If Mitch Daniels wants to be president, and that's a big "if," he cannot continue to project the sense that he's willing to myopically ignore any and all issues he deems to be impertinent to his policy priorities.  Presidents are required to juggle many complex issues at once.  Keeping a laser-like focus on one (admittedly critical) ball, while allowing all the others to drop, simply isn't acceptable.

UPDATE:  Rich Lowry tweets that the Daniels camp is pushing back against accusations that he's "caving" on the bill.  They're saying this simply isn't the Governor's priority and that he's not advocating killing the bill altogether -- just tabling it for now.  I'm not sure I see how this helps Daniels' case.  In politics, half the battle is timing.  Now is the time to stand and fight, not vote present.

UPDATE II:  Jim Geraghty has a more complete transcript of Daniels' remarks, which his people seem to think is exculpatory.  Not so much:

First of all, just to affirm, the activities of today are perfectly legitimate part of the process. Even the smallest minority – and that’s what we’ve heard from the last couple days -  has every right to express the strength of its views and I salute those who do. Just to be equally plain, I’m not sending the state police after anybody. I’m not going to divert a single trooper from their job of protecting the Indiana public. I trust that people’s consciences will bring them back to work and I choose to believe that our friends in the minority will, having made their point, will come back and do their duty and the jobs they are paid to do.

Unless I'm completely misreading this statement, Daniels is actually "saluting" Democratic legislators for leaving the state and refusing to participate in the political process -- calling their pathetic tactics "perfectly legitimate."  This not only offends the conservative base, it could actually undermine the important work Governor Walker has undertaken in Wisconsin by emboldening the 14 State Senators who are holed up in undisclosed locations.  Daniels' comments make it easier for these renegade lawmakers to claim that Walker is an extremist, and that their contemptible abdication of responsibility is in some way justified.  It also rewards --
praises, even -- Indiana Democrats for their poor behavior and invites an encore performance next time a tough vote is looming.

A number of conservatives are defending Daniels based on the merits of the proposed Right to Work legislation in question.  This line of defense totally misses the point.  If Daniels wants to stick by his original position, even in the face of the fluid national picture, he needs to be savvier about how he communicates his point.  His failure to do so, coupled with his continued refusal to even attempt to reposition his "truce" remarks, may be an indication of a certain principled obstinacy that may be admirable in the abstract, but is frustratingly counterproductive in practice.

UPDATE III:  In Daniels' defense, he actually accomplished in 2005 precisely what Walker is seeking to replicate today:

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels rescinded collective bargaining powers for state employees Tuesday and canceled settlement agreements for about 25,000 state workers, saying the arrangements hindered his ability to quickly reshape state government.

Daniels also created a separate, cabinet-level agency to oversee the state's child protection services. He said the current collective bargaining contracts, which were due to expire in June 2007, would have prevented him from doing that in the manner and speed he did.

If anything, this makes Daniels' current dance all the more maddening.  To his credit, Daniels has walked this walk -- which is all the more reason why he should be vociferously defending Walker's efforts right now, citing his own 2005 example.  In that context, he could better explain how the new Indiana bill deals with a separate issue and is not quite as urgent.  Frankly, his huge fumble here leads me to believe he simply isn't running for president.  No prospective candidate would be quite this careless and deliberately tin-eared, right?

UPDATE IV:  Several emailers have directed me to this Politico piece, detailing Daniels' recent support for Walker:

Mitch Daniels stood in solidarity with Wisconsin's Scott Walker today, telling a Chicago radio program that his fellow governor is "only doing what he said he'd do" and denouncing people who compared the protests there to the ones in Egypt.

Walker has "got a real fix on his hands," Daniels said in a morning interview with WLS 890 AM in Chicago. "The people who are doing the demonstrating, and their allies ... spent that state broke."

He added, "He's only doing what he said he'd do and presumably that's what we would want people in our politics, the way we'd want 'em to be.

Lending some rhetorical support is obviously better than the alternative or nothing at all, but his actions today tell another story.  I doubt he intentionally set out to undercut Walker/Kasich et al, but by praising (!) his state's own fleebagging Democrats, he's encouraged the misbehavior and encouraged its practitioners.  Allahpundit is

It’s unfathomable to me that he’d decline to press hard on unions at a moment when (a) conservatives are hoping to build nationwide momentum against PEUs and (b) the Democratic caucus in Indiana has decided to skip town to obstruct the process there too. At the very least, he could have phrased this as, “I’d prefer to wait until next term to take this up, but if Democrats can’t be bothered to show up, let’s go forward.” Instead, you’ll hear him promise in the clip not to send any state troopers after them, which already has Geraghty (among others) questioning his toughness.

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