BOOK REVIEW: ‘Keeping the Republic’
Mitch Daniels, elected governor of Indiana in 2004 and re-elected in 2008 after previously serving as President George W. Bush’s director of the Office of Management and Budget and as a senior aide to President Ronald Reagan, has been called “America’s best governor” and “the most presidential man in America.”
And until he took himself out the current lineup in May for family reasons, he was the preferred presidential choice of many Republicans. But the presidential question is now moot (although just down the line there’ll be a vice presidential choice). This book, perhaps originally intended to buttress a presidential campaign, will be read primarily as an account of how one governor, through the application of basic conservative principles, restored an overregulated and overtaxed state running in the red to economic good health - and did so while surrounding states were sinking into recession.
To be sure, his discussion is not limited to Indiana issues, and his comments on Social Security will attract attention. “For seventy years,” he writes, “Americans were misled to believe that they had been putting aside money for their own retirement. … This misrepresentation has been aptly named ‘the noble lie.’… As is now slowly becoming understood, there never was anything in the trust funds, just a growing mountain of obligations. … This whole setup is enough to give Mr. Ponzi a bad name - or a legitimate job. If old Carlo were around today, he’d have made an ideal Social Security commissioner.”
But campaign issues aside, it’s as a governor that he’s made his mark and about which he writes most compellingly. “All the words here are my own,” he assures us, “and I sometimes illustrate a point with a fact or anecdote drawn from my personal experience as governor of Indiana. But … telling people about your home state is like showing people your home movies: The visitors trapped on the couch are only pretending to be interested.”
Nevertheless, those experiences and accomplishments have attracted national attention, and the home movies are well worth watching. As columnist David Broder put it, “His style is to be down-home, but his record of accomplishment is dazzling.” And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie calls him “the thought leader among today’s governors and a real role model for me in New Jersey.”
At the end of his first term as governor of Indiana, Mr. Daniels balanced the budget, turning what had been a $700 million shortfall into a billion-plus-dollar surplus. Overall debt was reduced by 40 percent, and Indiana was given its first AAA credit rating ever. Indiana, Mr. Daniels writes, “was one of the few states … to navigate the recession without raising taxes of any kind.” In the process, and to the annoyance of tax-happy neighboring states, Indiana’s once-unattractive business climate has become one of the strongest for private-sector job growth.
Today, Indiana’s public-sector payroll is the smallest per capita in the nation, and Mr. Daniels serves as a model for states such as Wisconsin that are fighting to bring public payrolls under control. At the same time, he points out, governmental services have improved significantly. Even Indiana’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles, once a model of dysfunctional bureaucracy, is now rated the best in the country.
The governor is known for his travels through Indiana, seldom stopping at motels, choosing instead to stay with “a family with a spare bedroom or just a free pull-out couch willing to put me up for the night.” He enjoys talking to people with no particular ideology in their homes, people who “are looking for workable solutions to pressing problems affecting their families and communities.”
The book’s title comes from the answer, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, to a question about what sort of government had been created at the Constitutional Convention: “A republic,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.” It can be kept, Mr. Daniels writes, “by trusting Americans” and devising programs that speak directly to their concerns.
A short, compact, balding man, a policy wonk and a somewhat unlikely custom Harley-Davidson rider who knows where the best truck-stop food is served, Mitch Daniels doesn’t radiate the superficial charisma that seems increasingly demanded of our politicians.
But as George F. Will puts it in his foreword to this book, “From education to infrastructure, his Indiana accomplishments have given him something rare in contemporary politics: the charisma of competence.”
During his second term, Mr. Daniels tells us, a reporter asked him how he’d turned things around.
” ‘Prepare to be dazzled,’ I said. ‘We spent less than we took in.’ “
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).